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It's a warm summer weekend and you want to take your family to the beach to enjoy fun in the sun. But where do you go? The United States Environmental Protection Agency along with many State partners wants to help you make an informed decision. The EPA isn't going to tell you where the best waves are, where the best place is to make a sand castle, or how much sun screen to apply, but wants to help you make informed choices on the safest places to swim.

What do you mean by safe? You should take precautions when going to the beach. For example, making sure that you swim near a lifeguard. But there are also potential risks associated with the quality of the water. The EPA is very concerned about pollution at the beach. State public health and environmental agencies are also concerned, as are local and county public health officers. The United States Congress passed legislation in 2000 that codified and expanded EPA's beach program.

In March, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced $10 million in grants available to eligible States and territories to protect public health at this nation's beaches.

"Overwhelmingly, beaches are one of America's top vacation locations," Whitman said. "With this money we hope to reduce the risk of exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in the water while people enjoy our incredible water resources."

So what should you know when you go to the beach?

Obvious types of pollution at the beach. Trash is the most visible: cans, bottles, and cigarette butts are easy to see. However, the most risk comes from things we can't see: bacteria, viruses and other disease causing microorganisms. Swimming or playing in water that is polluted may cause you to get sick. People who are most at risk are children, the elderly, and those who have weakened immune systems.

So where does all this pollution come from? You might think of factories or large sewage treatment plants. However, coastal pollution comes from a wider and at times more covert range of sources. In fact a major source is polluted runoff, rainwater that picks up contaminants from lawns, farms, streets, and construction sites. Sewage overflows, malfunctioning sewage treatment plants and failing septic systems also present significant problems.

So what is EPA doing about this? And how do I protect myself and my family? EPA's BEACH program is aimed at reducing health risks to you and your family by minimizing your exposure to disease causing microorganisms in the water where you swim or play. EPA is working with State, tribal and local health and environmental officials to encourage the use of better tests to determine if the water is polluted and better methods of predicting when pollution may occur. With this advanced warning, much like a weather report, you will have the information necessary to decide when and where to swim.

Where do I get more information? State, tribal and local health and environmental protection officials are responsible for monitoring our nation's beaches. When they find a beach that is contaminated or that may pose a risk to human health they may post a warning sign or close the beach altogether. The best source of information on the quality of your favorite beach is your local public health or environmental office. These State and local agencies can provide the most current available information on water quality at your beach. You can obtain more information, including a list of State and local agencies that monitor beaches and report data to EPA, from EPA's website at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/beaches.

If it turns out that your beach isn't monitored regularly or at all, there are some precautions you can take to protect yourself and your family. For example, avoid swimming after a heavy rain. Anything that was on the streets may have been washed to your local waterbody. Second, look for storm drains at the beach. Storm drains may look like harmless little streams that are crossing the beach. But remember, these little streams are likely carrying all pollution that was recently on your streets. You can also look for other types of pollution that may indicate contamination. These include trash or oil slicks that may be harboring things that can make you sick. Lastly, look at the intensity of boating in the area of the beach, and find out if the waters associated with a particular beach is a no-discharge zone for vessel sewage. If it is a no-discharge zone, check to see if there are adequate pumpout and dump facilities.

You can also help reduce pollution at the beach. The most important thing to remember is that when it rains, it drains. And when it drains, pollutants from your home, your car and what ever else is on the ground may get washed to your local river, lake or beach. So discard your trash and other pollutants properly.

What is EPA doing to reduce pollution at the beach? EPA is providing storm water controls and is working with states and various stakeholders to control vessel sewage discharges. Through its marine debris program, EPA is working with States, local governments other organizations to increase awareness about the impacts of trash on our beaches and provide tools to help address the problem.

Gulf of Mexico Program Office
Mail Code: EPA/GMPO
Stennis Space Center, MS 39529-6000
FAX: 228-688-2709

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