Your odds of getting sick after swimming at your favorite beach could be as high as 1 in 28.

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its updated recommendations for recreational water quality. These recommendations help states set criteria for bacteria and other pathogens that are protective of public health for beaches where people go swimming or otherwise have direct contact with the water.

The problem with the current recommendations is that the criteria levels the EPA set for bacterial indicators of pollution are essentially unchanged from the last time they were issued – in 1986. At the time, the EPA estimated that around 8 in 1,000 people would suffer from serious gastrointestinal illness at the recommended levels. Although the EPA expanded its definition of illness to capture different types of illness in the current draft recommendations, it didn’t change the 1986 criteria values of bacterial indicators to make the standards more protective of human health. This means that with the expanded definition and the same 1986 criteria values, an estimated 36 out of 1,000 people (or 1 in 28) are likely to get sick.

Where is this pollution coming from?

In many cases, discharges from wastewater treatment plants pose the biggest threat to public health. However, polluted stormwater runoff can be a significant contributor to the bacteria, and sewage in waters that can make us sick.

When rainwater hits hard surfaces like roads and rooftops, it picks up contaminants like heavy metals that flow untreated into local rivers and streams. For cities with combined sewer systems, large amounts of stormwater can overwhelm the system and cause raw sewage to be discharged directly into waters.

What does polluted runoff cost us?

Lynette Batt
Stormwater flooding a street in Washington, DC

Water pollution associated with stormwater runoff imposes costs to community health and economic viability from increased hospital visits and missed work days when people get sick.

When beaches are forced to close, tourism revenues are decreased. A study of 28 beaches in California found that swimmers suffered an estimated as many as 1.5 million gastrointestinal illnesses at cost to the public of between $21 million and $51 million every year.

A solution to helping to abate the problem of stormwater flowing directly to a waterbody or overflowing sewer treatment plants is to implement Green infrastructure practices. Green infrastructure works by capturing and treating rainwater where it falls which prevents it from running off and becoming a bigger problem and a source of pollution. From green roofs to rain gardens, these practices protect clean water to help make our rivers and beaches clean and safe to swim in.

Learn if your beach is safe for swimming by visiting the EPA’s Beaches page.