WEDNESDAY, June 27 (HealthDay News) -- If you're headed to the seashore this summer, the last thing you want to hear is that you and your family could bring home a nasty disease after taking a dip in the ocean.
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But, the nation's beaches continue to put swimmers at risk for catching a variety of bacterial and viral illnesses, according to a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The report found that the number of beach closings and official advisories about polluted water at coastal U.S. beaches in 2011 reached the third-highest level in two decades. More than two-thirds of the closings and advisories were due to bacterial levels in the water that exceeded public health standards.
"Beaches can make you sick," said Steve Fleischli, water program director at the NRDC. The biggest causes of contamination are human and animal waste, largely from sewage brought to the sea through storm water run-off, he noted.
Fleischli said those at greater risk of contracting a sea-borne illness at the beach are people with weakened immune systems and small children who are more likely to ingest water while swimming.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3.5 million people become ill from contact with raw sewage from sewer overflows each year, which typically occur after a period of intense rain.
Beach water pollution can cause a range of illnesses in swimmers including diarrhea, skin rashes, conjunctivitis ("pinkeye"); ear, nose and throat problems; hepatitis; respiratory ailments; neurological disorders; and other serious health problems, according to the NRDC.
Ratings based on indicators of beach water quality, monitoring frequency and public notification systems were issued by the NRDC to 200 popular beaches in the country. Twelve beaches got a five-star rating, including Newport Beach in California and Wallis Sands Beach in New Hampshire. At the other end of the spectrum were the worst beaches, which included Avalon Beach and Doheny State Beach, both in California.
This year's report found water quality at the nation's beaches was stable, with 8 percent of water samples violating public health standards in 2011, as in 2010. The only inland beaches included in the report were the Great Lakes, which had the highest violation rate of the public health standards: 11 percent of the samples were below par.
Fleischli said budget shortfalls have caused some states to cut back on regular beach water testing and federal monies may be reduced soon. Without such testing, and subsequent online and site notifications of any problems, people are unaware of the risks.
Jon Devine, senior attorney of the water program at the NRDC, said there are several causes of contamination. "There are a number of reasons a beach may have a high rate of violation," he explained. "Geography, proximity to sources of pollution, such as storm water outfalls, and even frequent testing," which, although desirable for the public, can make a beach look less attractive for swimming than another that simply checks the water less often.
The NRDC is pressing the EPA to reconsider its proposed recommended standards for beach water quality, which it says are too lenient. It also is urging the EPA to reform and better enforce national requirements about sources of polluted storm water.
What can families do to stay healthy while swimming at the beach? Devine suggested selecting beaches with frequent water testing programs. "Stay out of the water when advisories are in effect or after heavy rains," he said.
Devine also encouraged people to be good stewards of the beach environment: "Don't feed wildlife, and clean up after your pet. If you're a boater, don't dump sewage in the ocean."
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SOURCES: June 27, 2012, media briefing with: Steve Fleischli, water program director, and Jon Devine, senior attorney, water program, Natural Resources Defense Council; June 27, 2012, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches