Protecting Americans’ Health at the Beach

You may have read my post on July 3 about EPA’s work to protect swimmers at America’s beaches. Protecting public health is a top priority for EPA, and I want to let you know about an updated guidance document we recently published to support this priority. We developed the National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants, 2014 Edition to help state, territorial and tribal governments do a better job at keeping beaches safe for swimming. We worked with these partners to make sure that the guidance included workable requirements while also better protecting the health of beachgoers.

Putting in Place Safer Standards for Recreational Waters

There are 38 states, territories, and tribes on our coasts or around the Great Lakes that are eligible for federal grants under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act). Since 2001, EPA has made available nearly $130 million to help those governments monitor recreational waters and notify the public of beach advisories or closures. In order to receive the grants, eligible governments must meet the performance criteria we establish.

A major goal of this updated guidance document was to help the 38 eligible BEACH Act states, territories, and tribes to adopt new or revised recreational water quality standards by 2016 in order to put in place the improved public health protections in EPA’s recreational water quality criteria. The science-based criteria improve public health protection by addressing a broader range of illness symptoms, better accounting for pollution after heavy rainfall, providing more protective recommendations for coastal waters, encouraging early alerts to beachgoers, and promoting rapid water testing.

Providing Early Alerts to Beachgoers

We developed the recreational water quality criteria in 2012 to better protect the health of Americans using water bodies for a variety of recreational activities such as swimming, wading and surfing. Public health officials use water quality standards derived from our criteria to determine if water quality has been meeting public health standards for safe recreation, for example, over the previous month.

The new grant performance criteria require all grant recipients to develop two schedules: one for adopting these standards, and another for identifying and using a more conservative, precautionary bacteria concentration threshold to trigger public notification of beach advisories or closures. EPA encourages use of a specific beach notification threshold, called a Beach Action Value, to provide an early alert to beachgoers, including young children and immunocompromised people who are particularly sensitive to contaminants. States, territories, and tribes would measure the concentration of bacteria found in a single sample of beach water and compare it to this conservative threshold when deciding whether to issue a beach advisory or closure.

Moving Toward Same-Day Notification of Beach Advisories

In our new guidance EPA urges states, territories, and tribes to move toward same-day notification when concentrations of bacteria exceed the criteria. We encourage this through the use of rapid testing methods and predictive models. Test methods are now available for speedier analysis of beach water samples, and predictive models can forecast water contamination based on weather and water conditions.
Our new guidance also encourages the use of tools that rapidly communicate those results to the public, such as social media, email, websites, and text messages. EPA is also requiring timely posting of monitoring results on state, territorial, and tribal websites, or on EPA’s website called BEACON (Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification), to ensure their public availability.

Paving the Way for Improved Beach Monitoring and Public Awareness

EPA intends for the updated guidance to serve as a reference guide on how to develop and conduct beach monitoring and notification programs. The guidance emphasizes the use of sanitary surveys to identify and assess potential sources of fecal pollution; strengthens the link between prioritizing beaches and developing a monitoring plan that reflects those priorities; and discusses modern methods for notifying the public about beach advisories. Following the recommendations in this updated guidance will lead all states, territories, and tribes into a new era of protecting public health at beaches.

New EPA Beaches Website

We recently overhauled EPA’s beaches website to not only better provide technical resources like the new guidance, but also to improve information for the public about how to plan a safe beach trip and take simple actions to ensure we all have healthy beach waters for recreation. Be sure to check out the new website before your next visit to the beach, and tell your friends and family, too!

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