As you cram your family, beach chairs, towels, beach umbrella, and cooler into the car for a summer getaway, the last thing you're likely to be thinking about are dangerous skin infections, questionable sunscreen chemicals, and E. coli bacteria. But to make sure your family doesn't get too sick to swim, do some homework before planning your trip, use our simple beach safety tips, and keep ocean conservation in mind even at home to improve the health of the oceans we love to swim in.
1. Poop. Rain is often the carrier of beach water pollution. That's because during heavy downpours, sewage systems are often overwhelmed, and raw sewage spews right into coastal waters before going through water-treatment plants. This type of pollution, which can carry E. coli and other microbes, can lead to nasty stomach illnesses. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council analysis, sewage spills and overflows accounted for more than 4,000 beach closures and advisory days in 2007.
What to do: Find a beach that tests its waters regularly and has a good track record by calling that beach's county health department. Those that use the rapid test created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can detect pollution more quickly, which reduces a swimmer's risk of being exposed. If you're already at the beach, avoid swimming in the ocean 24 hours after a heavy rain. On a more proactive level, you can help keep fecal waste out of waterways by making sure you always pick up pet waste (whether you're near a beach or not) and keeping septic systems you use in good working order.
Read more: Do this on your next beach vacation
2. Chemical exposure. If you need another good reason to stay out of the water after a heavy storm, consider all the pollutants found in stormwater, including trash, motor oil, and pesticides. Pollution from stormwater was the most common cause of pollution-related beach closings and health advisory days in 2007. As global warming creates stronger storms featuring more torrential downpours, the problem will likely get worse.
What to do: Again, check with county health officials regarding past water-quality test results, and if you're blessed with a flexible schedule, try not to visit during or after a stormy week that could send lots of contaminants into the water. At home, do your part. Never pour motor oil down the drain or onto the ground—a single quart can contaminate 250,000 gallons of water. Instead, check for local programs that will recycle it. Instead of dumping or trashing paint, harsh cleaners, or other hazardous household chemicals down the drain, take them to a local hazardous-waste collection day. And remember, you can clean almost anything with a nontoxic (and cheap) solution of white vinegar mixed with water in a spray bottle.
3. The wrong sunscreen. The last thing you want when you're on vacation is tomato-red sunburned skin—or the increased risk of cancer and other health problems that comes with it. But not all sunscreens are created equally. Many sunscreens contain the hormone-disrupting chemicals benzophenone-3 (BP-3), commonly referred to as oxybenzone or 2-hydroxy-4-methoxybenzophenone. Although it's not completely clear how the hormone-disrupting chemical is affecting humans, animal studies show damage to the liver, kidney, and reproductive organs. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredients.
What to do: The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so try not to be in direct sunlight during those times. Use a beach umbrella and consider wearing SPF-30 beach clothing and swimwear. Look for brands like Solumbra, which don't coat products in chemicals, but rather, keep the sun out with a special fabric weave. When you do use sunscreen, choose brands containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that have a white tint that doesn't absorb easily into your skin. They're less likely to contain teeny nanoparticles, which could disrupt cell function in microorganisms and people. Check the EWG database for safer sunscreens.
Read more: 7 new rules for sunscreen
4. Dehydration. It's easy to forget about drinking water when you're enjoying the beach, but dehydration will spoil the party in a hurry.
What to do: Load up on water, but try to pack your own in stainless steel reusable water bottles in a cooler; this will help cut down on plastic consumption and save you money. Avoiding plastic packaging in general is a great favor you can do for your oceans, since many are contaminated with huge amounts of not only plastic trash, but also plastic pellets used in plastic production. Sea animals and shorebirds often mistake these pellets for food, which can be a lethal mistake.
Read more: The 3 worst products in your bathroom
5. MRSA. Last year a researcher announced that MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacterium that can cause persistent, sometimes fatal, infections, has been found in ocean sand and water. It's not clear if the germ's more prevalent along the shore now than in the past, or if there's an environmental connection. But it's definitely not the beach souvenir you want to bring home.
What to do: Take a quick shower before and after you spend time on the beach or in the ocean. You don't need to use chemical-laden, polluting soaps, either. Castile-based soap and warm water have been proven to be just as effective at killing germs as antimicrobial blends (which contribute to the rise of resistant germs like MRSA). Also, be sure to wash your bathing suit before wearing it again. If you have a wound, it's best not to swim in the ocean because the break in your skin provides a direct entry point for germs to get into your system.