Memorial Day — the unofficial kickoff of the summer season — is almost upon us! Many of us are planning to spend the long weekend at the beach, but as the oil disaster continues to devastate the Gulf of Mexico, environmental and human health issues in the water are at the top of my mind.

Certainly in the Gulf of Mexico, residents are facing new beach threats as new reports crop up every day of tar balls reaching shore. While we don’t yet know the extent of the damage, we do know that gobs of oil are washing up on the shores of Louisiana and Alabama, forcing officials there to close popular beaches right before the summer season begins. My colleague Gina Solomon posted a series of Q&As (here, here and here) about human health and the oil spill. If that’s how you’re hoping to spend your holiday weekend, these Q&As are certainly worth a read to make sure you’re protecting yourself and your family.

And for the rest of the country — from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Great Lakes, and including the Gulf — there are everyday steps you can take to protect yourself from getting sick when taking a trip to the beach.    

Every summer, beachwater pollution forces beach closings around the country. In 2008, there were more than 20,000 closures and advisories across the country, as reported in NRDC's annual Testing the Waters report. Those closures and advisories happen because beachwater is contaminated with bacteria and pathogens from human and animal waste that can make people sick. The most common illness is stomach flu, which is characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and fever. Swimmers can also experience ear, nose, and throat problems or skin rashes. People often don’t make the connection to swimming in the ocean and coming down with these symptoms — but that’s often the case.

Beachwater pollution comes from a variety of different sources. Heavy summer rains wash over roads, parking lots and other surfaces, picking up pollutants along the way and carrying them to the coast. This includes waste from pets, livestock and wild animals. Even when it’s not raining, runoff from landscape irrigation, the draining of swimming pools, car washing, and various commercial activities can lead to the same result. Leaky and overflowing sewers can release human waste directly into our waterways as well, especially after a hard rainfall. 

So as you head out to the beach this summer, here are a few tips for staying healthy: 

  • Make sure that the water has recently been tested and determined to be safe. 
  • Avoid swimming for at least 72 hours after a rain storm, if there is an advisory, if the water looks cloudy, or if it smells bad — build a sandcastle or play volleyball instead. 
  • If possible, choose beaches that are next to open water or away from urban areas. They typically pose less of a health risk than beaches in developed areas or in enclosed bays and harbors with little water circulation.
  • Look for pipes along the beach that drain stormwater runoff from the streets, and don't swim near them.
  • If you can't find out if the beachwater is safe, complain to the local public health agency. Also, check out NRDC's guide on how to find a clean beach for more information.
NRDC is working on our 20th annual Testing the Waters report, due out later this summer. As usual, we'll let you know how your favorite beaches are stacking up. We’ll also offer solutions to how to keep polluted runoff from getting into our beachwater in the first place, including “building greener” by planting rain gardens, planting more trees on city sidewalks and parking lots, and using green roofs.

This article was reprinted with permission from