Gulf Oil Spill's Toll on Nation's Beaches

Report Cites Thousands of Beach Closings, Advisories, and a Host of Possible Health Problems

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 28, 2010 -- One in five beaches off the Gulf of Mexico has been closed this season because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental action group headquartered in New York City.

There were 2,239 beach closings and advisory days issued along beaches in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi since the April 22 spill -- a number that is 10 times higher than beach closings and advisory days in these areas for any reason in 2009, says David Beckman, director of the NRDC's water program. To date, there have been no official beach closures or advisories in Texas, which also is adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred about 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., after an explosion and fire damaged a Transocean oil rig, causing it to burn for hours and sink. As a result, oil has streaked shorelines along the Gulf.

Calling the oil spill an "unprecedented and unfolding disaster," Beckman says that "oil has heavy metal and toxic chemicals that you may be breathing in on a contaminated beach." Coming into direct contact with the oil may cause a host of health problems including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and skin rashes and irritation.

"If you are at a beach where you can see or smell oil, leave," he advises. "In addition to ruining your day at the beach, by breathing in oil instead of sea air, there can be direct health impacts."

Jon Devine, an attorney with the NRDC's water program, says that "we need to take new and strong action to make sure that companies have adequate clean-up procedures in the event of another disaster and change policies to make sure something like this doesn't have to happen again."

Using cleaner energy sources and not rushing to do any more deep-water drilling are part of the solution, he says.

2009 Beach Water Quality Ratings

This is the 20th year that NRDC has issued the report on water quality at beaches. In previous years, the group only rated beach water quality using a five-star system based on pollution problems, monitoring of pollution, and how quickly or how well beaches warn beachgoers about potential contamination.

In 2009, the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches topped 18,000 for the fifth consecutive year, the new report shows. This is the sixth highest level in the 20 years that the group has been tracking water quality information.

What can be done to clean up our beaches? A lot. Devine says.

"Policy makers can do a lot to clean up the sources of storm water and sewage pollution, and we encourage them to do that by broadly implementing 'green' infrastructure," Devine says. This involves using vegetation -- green strips on highways, parking lots, and roofs -- to absorb storm water where it falls and make sure this water doesn't pick up human and animal waste on its way to the beach.

Beachgoers should check the Internet for water advisories before packing up the car and heading to the surf. "Stay away from beaches with visible pollution and don't swim after a heavy rainfall," Devine says. "Give it at least a day so [pollutants] break down," he says. This is especially important for people who are vulnerable to contaminated beach water, such as small children, elderly people, pregnant women, and people with cancer or weakened immune systems.

Look for pipes along the beach that drain storm water runoff from the streets, and don't swim near them, he says.

Improvements in the water monitoring system can also help keep beachcombers safer, Devine says.

The current water surveillance program only looks for a couple of bugs that cause gastrointestinal illness. "We can do a lot better about identifying a broader range of potential contaminants at the beach," he tells WebMD.

Another area that needs improvement is the speed at which water quality is tested, he says. It takes 24 hours to get water quality results. "In essence, it's a day old so it applies to yesterday's water."

Curious how your favorite beach stacks up? Visit


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NRDC: "Testing the Waters 2010: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches."
David Beckman, director, NRDC water program.
Jon Devine, attorney, NRDC water program.
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