Beach Alert: Swimming in Pennsylvania’s polluted waters can make you sick

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New report finds contaminated water at Erie beaches, calls for action to prevent pollution

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

[Erie, PA] – With summer in full swing, Pennsylvania beachgoers should beware: It might not be safe to go in the water. Last year, 27 beaches across the state had water pollution levels that put swimmers at risk of getting sick on at least one occasion last year, according to a new report by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. The study, Safe for Swimming?, looked at fecal bacteria levels at a total of 28 beaches across the state.

“Swimming at the beach is a prime summertime joy for so many Pennsylanians, but clearly we have more work to do to make sure water at all our beaches is safe,” said Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania Director with PennEnvironment. “We must invest in green infrastructure that prevents pollution to ensure that America’s waterways are safe for swimming.”

Five sites in Erie County were potentially unsafe on at least a quarter of the days tested. Those beaches were Beach 11 West, Beach 11 East, Beach 11 Center, Barracks Beach West, and Pettinato Beach Center. Erie County’s worst offender was Beach 11 East and West in Thompson Bay, which had bacteria levels high enough to put swimmers at risk for 17 of 39 days tested– or 44%.

“This report I think is showing that a lot more work needs to be done,” said State Representative Pat Harkins. “And let’s not forget we have a great asset here now [in Presque Isle], but we can always make it better.”

Common sources of this pollution include stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. So far in 2019, the City of Erie has reported 13 sewer overflow events and counting. These overflows occur when stormwater overwhelms sewage treatment facilities and raw sewage or only partially treated sewage is released directly into waterways. Fecal bacteria can make people ill, particularly with gastrointestinal ailments. An estimated 57 million people nationwide get sick from contact with polluted waters annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report includes several recommendations to prevent bacterial pollution and keep our beaches safe for swimming. Rain barrels, rooftop gardens, permeable pavement, and urban green space can all absorb stormwater runoff and prevent sewage overflows. Congress is now considering legislation to increase funding for such “green infrastructure” projects through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.


PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization. We are dedicated to protecting our air, water, and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information, visit