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Healthiest Vacation Beaches in the US

Healthiest vacation beaches in the US

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has awarded a 5-star rating to 13 vacation beaches in the United States for 2012. How do these beaches get rated, and are any of the healthiest vacation beaches in the US on your list of places to visit this year?

What makes a beach healthy?

Summertime often means making a trip to the beach for sun, fun, and other entertainment. However, you also want to be safe, and so the NRDC ranks 200 vacation beaches (ocean, bay, and Great Lakes) in the United States based on a number of criteria, including:

  • Testing the bacterial levels in the water more than once a week (some beaches check up to 5 times per week, although once or twice is the average)
  • Notifying the public immediately after the bacterial levels are shown to violate health standards
  • Posting advisories and beach closings both online and at the beach

Overall, the 5-star winners exhibited “exceptionally low violation rates and strong testing and safety practices,” which suggests these are excellent choices when considering a beach vacation. The winners by state (and names of the beaches) were:

  • Alabama: Gulf Shores Public Beach and Gulf State Park Pavilion
  • California: Bolsa Chica Beach, Newport Beach (38th St, 52nd/53rd St), and San Clemente State Beach
  • Delaware: Dewey Beach (Dagsworthy) and Rehoboth Beach (Rehoboth Ave)
  • Maryland: Ocean City at Beach 6
  • Michigan: Bay City State Recreation Area
  • Minnesota: Park Point Franklin Park (13th St South Beach) and Lafayette Community Club Beach
  • New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park and Wallis Sands Beach at Wallis Road

Perhaps surprising to some readers is the absence of any 5-star beaches in Florida, Hawaii, and Virginia and the low number in California. In fact, a number of vacation beaches in Florida ranked only 1 star. A full list of the vacation beaches and their ratings can be seen on the NRDC website.

What the NRDC looks for
The primary reason beaches are closed is because of bacterial levels in the water, including animal and human waste, that exceed public health standards. The greatest known source of pollution is stormwater runoff, a problem that exists in large part because cities have failed to initiate and implement green infrastructure such as street planting and green roofs to capture rain water as it falls instead of it triggering overflowing sewers and beach pollution.

The NRDC began tracking this water quality information in 2005. As of 2012, there were 3,673 beaches reporting their monitoring results.

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In 2012, the number of beach closings and advisory days totaled 20,120, which was a 14 percent decline from 2011. Typically, a drier beach season, as occurred in 2012, results in fewer beach closings.

In addition, the NRDC reported 59 closing and advisory events in 2012 that lasted more than 6 but not more than 13 consecutive weeks and another 38 that lasted longer than 13 consecutive weeks.

Health hazards at vacation beaches
An estimated 3.5 million people in the United States become ill each year because of exposure to sewage from sewer overflow, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. One study estimated that up to nearly 1.5 million people experience gastrointestinal illnesses at Los Angeles and Orange County beaches each year because of fecal contamination.

Symptoms associated with exposure to contaminated beach water can include stomach flu, rash, hepatitis, pinkeye (conjunctivitis), and respiratory infections. Children are more susceptible since they tend to swallow more water than adults.

Wherever you decide to spend your vacation, be sure to check out all the factors that have an impact on your and your family’s safety and health. The NRDC report on safe vacation beach spots can be a resource for those who are contemplating a beach holiday.

Given S et al. Regional public health cost estimates of contaminated coastal waters: a case study of gastroenteritis at Southern California beaches. Environmental Science and Technology 2006; 40:4851
National Resources Defense Council
US Environmental Protection Agency. Notice of proposed rulemaking, NPDES permit requirements for municipal sanitary sewer collection systems, municipal satellite collection systems, and sanitary sewer overflows. 2001 Jan 4.
Wade TJ et al. Rapidly measured indicators of recreational water quality are predictive of swimming-associated gastrointestinal illness. Environmental Health Perspectives 2006 Jan; 114(1): 24-28

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