Suntan lotion? Check. Swimsuits? Got 'em. Beaches where you can swim without getting sick? Better check the Internet, because more and more beaches are reporting unsafe waters.
State and local health departments along U.S. coasts and waterways post the results of bacteria tests on the Web and tell people when the water is not suitable for swimming. And with more health officials patrolling waterways, the number of beach closures and health warnings nearly doubled between 1999 and 2000, according to a study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The more monitoring there is, the more pollution is found," said Sarah Chasis, director of the council's water and coastal programs.
In 2000, U.S. beaches reported a total of 11,270 instances of closures and health advisories, up from 6,160 in 1999. An instance could be for more than one day. The 2000 figure is the highest the council has recorded in the 11 years it has studied the issue.
But not every beach is getting properly monitored - and even if a beach is monitored, that doesn't mean local officials are sounding alarms if there is a problem, according to Chasis.
"There are still many beaches in many areas of the country where there is not regular monitoring and even when there is regular monitoring there is not closing or advisories for the public to let them know that health standards have been exceeded," she said.
Towns in Maine, Virginia, Florida and Hawaii - to name a few - sometimes will not post warnings or close beach areas even if the waters test unhealthy, the report says.
But health officials say the reporting depends on the type of area. In Virginia, for example, Virginia Beach is the most popular swimming destination in the state and is tested every week. No beaches in that area were closed last year because bacteria levels were deemed safe.
But other spots along the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River are not monitored to the same degree and usually are tested once a month.
"Some of those areas are not bathing beaches," said Michele Monti, senior marine scientist for the Virginia Department of Health. "The testing is different and areas where fewer people are likely to swim and people are advised that they go in at their own risk."
But the defense council said that monitoring policies should be more consistent across the country. Right now, health standards can differ from state to state and beach to beach. All the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can do is offer guidelines on what are considered safe bacteria levels.
Chasis said that some states and local agencies fall well short of following those recommendations. Oregon and Louisiana, for instance, do not have any statewide policies or procedures for beach-water checkups.
However, the report cited California, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina as the states that test the most at more beaches and use the highest EPA recommended standards. Most of those states also were among the top 10 in reported beach closures.
Heavy rainfall in most states -except drought-ridden Florida - contributed to the record number of health advisories last year. Rain helps wash sewage, oils, trash and chemicals into oceans, rivers and other bodies of water.
As a result, about 2 million people return from beaches each year complaining of stomachaches, ear infections or other bacteria-related ailments, according to EPA estimates.
"We do not want people to stay away from the beaches or to be afraid of going to the beach," said Chasis, of the defense council. "The fact is that some beaches are cleaner than others. And that's what people need to realize."
On the Net:
For information about a specific beach, contact the local health agency or check online for testing information at the Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org, or the Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/OST/beaches/ .
|Number of beach closings and advisories in 2000|
(Not all states are listed; a single closing may be for more than one day)
Louisiana (no tests)
New Hampshire 21
New Jersey 33
New York 388
North Carolina 128
Oregon (no tests)-
Puerto Rico 3
Rhode Island 62
South Carolina 118
Virgin Islands 34
Washington state 34
Total U.S. 11,270
Source: Natural Resources Defense Council