Beach Pollution: How Big Is the Problem?

Beach pollution is a problem in every coastal state. In the year 2002, beach pollution caused at least 12,184 closings and swimming advisories at ocean, bay, Great lakes, and some freshwater beaches. This pollution is hazardous to the environment, and swimming in contaminated beach waters may be dangerous to ones health. Additionally, these closings and swimming advisories may have impacts to local economies that rely heavily on beach-goers. Beach pollution is usually infrequent or confined to local areas. Based on the number of nationwide beach closings and swimming advisories, beach pollution is a persistent problem.

Primary Causes of Beach Pollution

Most U.S. beach closings result from high levels of harmful microorganisms found in untreated or partially treated sewage (most of which enters the water from combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and malfunctioning sewage treatment plants). Heavy rainfall can overload sewer systems which carry raw sewage to sewage treatment plants. When flows exceed the capacity of the system, sewers can overflow and discharge untreated sewage from manholes and bypasses at pump stations and sewage treatment plants. The discharges flow into local waterways and pollute the water. Rainwater can also pick up pollutants as it washes over land, and boost the overall volume of storm water and polluted runoff that reaches coastal waters. Another significant source of beach water pollution is untreated storm water runoff from cities and rural areas. Additional local sources of pollution in beach waters are boating wastes and malfunctioning septic systems. Severe natural events such as hurricanes and floods may contribute to beach water pollution. In many cases, the sources of beach water pollution have not been tracked down. The vast majority of nationwide closings and advisories in 2002 (87%) were issued because monitors detected bacteria associated with fecal contamination; however, the source could not be identified.

Common Contaminants of Beach Water

Polluted stormwater runoff and untreated sewage released into the water can expose swimmers to bacteria, viruses, and protozoan. These pathogens (or disease carrying organisms) can be present at or near the site where polluted discharges enter the water. Swimming-related illnesses are typically minor in nature. They usually require little or no treatment and have no long-term health effects, but they can cause significant discomfort. The most common such illness is gastroenteritis. Its symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache, and fever. Other minor illnesses commonly spread by contaminated beach water include eye, ear, nose, and throat infections. In waters that are highly polluted, more serious diseases like dysentery, hepatitis, cholera, and typhoid fever may be contracted. Most swimmers are exposed to waterborne pathogens by swallowing the water. Some infections (such as skin and eye infections) can be contracted from direct exposure to polluted water. In rare cases, swimmers can develop illnesses or infections from exposure to polluted water through an open wound. To reduce your chances of becoming ill from swimming at a public beach, always be aware of any closures or advisories, choose swimming sites in less developed areas with good water circulation, avoid swimming at beaches with visible discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall, and, because most swimmers are exposed to pathogens by swallowing the water, swimming without submerging your head will help prevent many illnesses.

Monitoring Beach Pollution

Without monitoring, there is no way to guarantee that a beach is free of pollution. The frequency of monitoring is related to the risk of pollution from sewage and polluted runoff, and the extent of beach use.

What You Can Do to Prevent Beach Pollution

Pollution prevention efforts are the most effective way to reduce beach water pollution. Large-scale activities, such as the Mississippi Coastal Clean-Up, are organized by the state and other environmental organizations. Individual pollution prevention efforts include conserving water, keeping septic systems properly maintained, disposing of boat sewage in onshore sanitary facilities, and using natural fertilizers. These can be a big help in reducing beach water pollution.

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Coastal Cleanup 2014

The 2014 Mississippi Coastal Cleanup took place on October 18, 2014.

1,616 people picked up 1,603 bags of trash, including 275 bags of recyclables along 100 miles in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties.

For more information, visit www.mscoastalcleanup.org.

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Coastal Cleanup 2013

The 2013 Mississippi Coastal Cleanup took place on October 19, 2013.

News Release: Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Day Nets 956 Bags of Trash

For more information, visit www.mscoastalcleanup.org.

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Impact Monitoring Program

Be Green Keep Our Coast CleanThe Impact Monitoring Program, funded by the Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP) serves to help protect Mississippi's coastal wetlands and waterways from marine debris. Marine debris is a worldwide problem that can have adverse effects on wildlife, water quality, navigation, tourism and human health.

Debris ends up in the marine environment from many sources including littering, improper disposal, loss of fishing gear, natural disasters as well as items accidently falling from offshore oil and gas platforms. It is estimated that 80% of marine debris enters the water from the land-based sources.

Project field personnel from the Impact Monitoring Program survey coastal Mississippi's waterways to map and whenever possible, remove marine debris as it is found. Georeferenced photographs are taken of each debris site and notes are made regarding the size, type and potential source of the debris. Information from sites that include potential toxic waste or hazardous materials is forwarded to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Derelict vessels are reported to the Derelict Vessel Removal Program of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

Maps, photographs and all other information gathered during debris surveys is provided to volunteer coastal clean-up groups such as the Mississippi Coastal Clean-Up and Renew our Rivers.

More Information

United States Environmental Protection Agency

NOAA Marine Debris Program

How You Can Help in the Fight Against Marine Debris

Mississippi Coastal Cleanup

Renew Our Rivers

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Coastal Cleanup 2012

The 2012 Mississippi Coastal Cleanup took place on October 20, 2012. For more information, visit www.mscoastalcleanup.org.

News Release: Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Nets 2,053 Bags of Trash

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Coastal Cleanup 2011

2011 cleanup statistics

Visit the Official Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Website

Thousands of volunteers combed Mississippi's beaches and waterways picking up marine debris at 77 designated cleanup sites during the 23rd annual Mississippi Coastal Cleanup, part of the International Coastal Cleanup—the world's largest volunteer effort to clean up the marine environment. During the 2011 Mississippi Coastal Cleanup, 3,102 volunteers picked up 2,218 bags of trash, along 262 miles of Coastal waterways in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. The cleanup is organized by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources’ Public Affairs Bureau and Mississippi Marine Debris Task Force. The Mississippi Coastal Cleanup returned to the beaches and barrier islands and again expanded its reach through its partnership with Mississippi Power's Renew Our Rivers program, cleaning four sites on the days leading up to the Oct. 15, 2011 cleanup and one additional site on cleanup day.

News Release: Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Nets 2,218 Bags of Trash 

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