Just in time for the biggest beach-going weekend of the year, an environmental group warned yesterday that it may not be safe to swim at many ocean and bay beaches in Maryland and the rest of the nation.
Pollution forced authorities in Maryland and 21 other coastal states to close beaches or advise against swimming more than 2,600 times last year, according to a survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council released yesterday.
But just because a beach is not closed or posted is no guarantee its water is clean, the Washington-based group says, since state and local swimming-safety standards are inconsistent and often inadequate.
The group called for strengthening the federal Clean Water Act to eliminate sources of beach pollution and to set uniform national standards for ensuring that waters are safe for swimming.
"Over 160 million visitors enjoyed America's beaches last year, injecting billions of dollars into coastal economies," said Sarah Chasis, a Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer and director of the beach study. "Tourists have a right to know when beaches are unclean and a right to demand action to prevent beach-water contamination."
Most beach closings and swimming advisories were caused by high levels of bacteria from human and animal waste, the report says. The main sources of contamination are sewage spills or overflows, overloaded sewage treatment plants, failing septic systems, polluted rainfall running off streets and farms, and waste discharges from boats.
Swimming in polluted water is not usually life-threatening, but it can spoil a vacation. The most common water-borne illness is gastroenteritis, in which the symptoms include diarrhea, fever, headache, nausea, stomachache and vomiting. But bathers also face the risk of contracting dysentery or hepatitis.
Beach closure practices vary from state to state, the report says. Although the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidelines in 1986 for testing swimming waters, many states, including Maryland, do not follow them.
Eight states in the Southeast and Northwest do not test ocean and bay beach waters at all, or do so only in response to specific incidents, the environmental group says. Five states -- including Maryland -- monitor only some of the beaches people use for swimming.
In Maryland, there were five Chesapeake Bay beaches in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's counties that were closed during last year, either permanently or for months at a time, because of pollution. Cecil County has a standing health advisory warning its beach goers not to swim after a rainfall if the water appears cloudy or muddy.
State regulations require testing at least monthly of officially permitted public swimming beaches, and several areas in Anne Arundel are sampled weekly.
Ocean City's 12 miles of Atlantic beach are tested monthly. But several counties with bay shoreline do not check at all.
Maryland beaches are sampled for fecal coliform, a bacterium in human and animal waste that might indicate the presence of disease-causing viruses. Monthly samples with an average of more than 200 bacteria per 100 milliliters water are considered unsafe by the state.
However, the EPA recommends testing for another bacteria, enterococcus, which it considers a better indicator of potential disease problems. Though such tests take slightly longer and may cost more, studies show that they are a better indicator of swimming-associated diseases.
Maryland also leaves it up to local authorities to decide whether to close a beach or issue a swimming advisory, and the environmental group's report says that "beaches are not always closed when the bacteria level is exceeded." Anne Arundel maintains a beach swimming hot line.
Delaware, where many Marylanders vacation, adheres more closely to EPA guidelines and conducts weekly tests at its 12 ocean and bay beaches. The state also has an advisory hot line. (800-922-WAVE.) There were five closures or advisories last year.
Virginia leaves beach monitoring entirely up to its localities. Virginia Beach, that state's major Atlantic resort, checks its waters monthly, using the same criteria that Maryland does. There have been no closings or advisories for locally run Virginia beaches in the past two years.
Maryland officials defend their beach-monitoring program.
"We think it's a system that is protective of public health," said Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Local officials, who know their waters best, do "a good job."
But the National Park Service, which supervises Assateague Island National Seashore just south of Ocean City, has concluded that Maryland's water testing methods are not enough protection for the 2 million people who annually visit the 38-mile-long island straddling the Maryland-Virginia border.
The seashore began sampling its beaches weekly in 1991 after lifeguards on the Virginia end of the island complained of recurring sore throats and earaches, said John P. Kumer, a natural resources specialist at the seashore.
The beach at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia was closed for a few days in 1991 when high levels of bacteria were found following EPA testing guidelines. The contamination was traced to an underground septic system serving a bathhouse at the beach. A Maryland-style water test did not detect any problem.