New report: 328 beaches nationwide were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least a quarter of days tested

Media Contacts

Study shows pollution persists as Congress considers water infrastructure funding

Environment America Research & Policy Center

BOSTON – With millions of Americans returning to the beach this summer, a new report warns that more work is needed to ensure that all waters are safe for swimming. In 2020, 328 beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one quarter of days tested, according to the Safe for Swimming report by Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group. The report comes as Congress votes on a major wastewater infrastructure package.

“Even as Americans are back to enjoying the fresh sea breeze and splash of waves at the beach, pollution still plagues too many of the places where we swim,” said John Rumpler, Clean Water Program director for Environment America 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. While more than 300 beaches appear to have a persistent pollution problem, they are not alone in being impacted by pathogens in the water. More than half of all the 3,166 coastal and Great Lakes beaches reviewed exceeded this threshold on at least one day tested in 2020.  

The following percentages of beaches were potentially unsafe on at least one day in 2020:

  • 47 percent of East Coast beaches
  • 60 percent of Great Lakes beaches
  • 82 percent of Gulf Coast beaches
  • 72 percent of West Coast beaches

“The most dangerous pollution at our beaches is usually the result of human activity,” said Gideon Weissman of Frontier Group. “We hope the maps and data in our report can help people find and address these pollution sources in their own communities.” 

Polluted runoff from roads and parking lots, overflowing or failing sewer systems, and industrial livestock operations are common sources of contamination that can put swimmers’ health at risk and lead authorities to close beaches or issue health advisories. Scientists estimate 57 million instances of people getting sick each year from swimming in polluted waters in the United States. Those illnesses can include nausea, diarrhea, ear infections and rashes. 

The report recommends major investments to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution. This week, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to consider a major water infrastructure bill, which authorizes urgently needed funding to stop sewage overflows, with 15 percent of those funds dedicated to green projects – including nature-based solutions that prevent runoff pollution from flowing into our rivers, lakes, and streams.