Pathogens pose risk at 264 Massachusetts beaches

Media Contacts
Ben Hellerstein

Former State Director, Environment Massachusetts

Despite progress, water quality challenges persists as Congress considers infrastructure funding

Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center

BOSTON – With Bay Staters returning to local beaches this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. In 2020, 264 beaches in Massachusetts were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one day, according to Safe for Swimming?, a report from Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center. The report comes as Congress considers investments in water infrastructure.

“In the last few decades, we’ve made significant progress in cleaning up our waterways — but pollution is still plaguing too many of the places where we swim,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center. “Now is the time to fix our water infrastructure and stop the flow of pathogens to our beaches.”

To assess beach safety, the group examined whether fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most protective “Beach Action Value,” which is associated with an estimated illness rate of 32 out of every 1,000 swimmers. King’s Beach in Lynn had bacteria levels above this safety threshold on 64 out of 85 days tested last year.

Tenean Beach in Boston, Wollaston Beach in Quincy, and Keyes Beach in Barnstable were among the other beaches found potentially unsafe for swimming on the most days in 2020.

In January, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill introduced by Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Sen. Pat Jehlen that will require timely public notification when sewage is discharged into waterways.

“All of you here today and the organizations you represent were critical to the passing of the combined sewer overflow (CSO) law,” said state Representative Linda Dean Campbell. “This law will become more important to the public as climate change accelerates at a rate we currently underestimate. Now it must be all hands on deck to put in place the infrastructure that will prevent CSOs and protect one of the most critical of all human needs — clean water.”

Polluted runoff and sewage overflows are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate that there are 57 million instances of people getting sick each year in the United States from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds. This includes cases of acute gastrointestinal illness.

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution.

“The Safe for Swimming? report illustrates the threats that so many families face, often unknowingly, when they decide to go for a swim,” said Katharine Lange, policy specialist for Massachusetts Rivers Alliance. “Sewage pollution endangers public health and harms ecosystems across the state. Massachusetts must boldly invest in infrastructure upgrades to separate our sewer systems and reduce stormwater to better prepare the Commonwealth for the impacts of climate change, and to make our waterways safer for residents.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a legislative package that would improve water infrastructure and protect drinking water. The legislation authorizes a landmark $40 billion for clean water infrastructure, with 15 percent of that funding dedicated to natural infrastructure projects.

“Now that Massachusetts is shining a light on pollution in our waterways, let’s improve our water infrastructure to end these sewage discharges once and for all,” said Hellerstein. “With the right investments, a cleaner, healthier, pollution-free future is within reach.”