In the past week, most of the northeastern Atlantic seaboard has received several inches of rain. The storm drains and sewers of the region's cities have been overwhelmed by millions of gallons of runoff, carrying whatever garbage was lying in the gutters and frequently discharging a mix of raw sewage and street runoff in older cities' combined sewer systems.
So (and I'm sorry to be such a bummer), even though it's finally sunny and warm, it would be kind of gross to take a dip in the ocean right now.
Here in Portland, for instance, the East End Beach has been under a pollution advisory for most of the past week, and was closed completely over the weekend. In New York, several beaches in the Bronx and North Queens are under advisory or closed, and a number of beaches around Boston in Massachusetts Bay are either closed or nearing the health limit.
Beach water quality is determined by the number of enterococci bacteria found in a 100 milliliter sample, which is highly correlated with the number of other pathogenic bacteria that are often found in sewage, including fecal coliform. The federal limit defined by the EPA is 35 colonies per 100 mL, but keep in mind that the federal standard has been influenced by lobbyists: Hawaii, the state with the strictest water-quality standards, posts warnings on its beaches if its testing samples find any more than 7 bacteria in 100 ml of water.
So, for instance, you might not want to swim at Boston's Carson Beach, even though its open, since the sample taken yesterday found 31 colony-forming units of enterococci. Scarborough Beach State Park found 20 colony-forming bacteria in its sample on Tuesday. And even in relatively isolated areas of the coast, weird stuff is washing up on beaches - for instance, dozens of used hypodermic needles on a beach in Harpswell, in midcoast Maine.
So, as tempting as it is, I will not be visiting a beach this afternoon. If I were you, I'd lay off the bottom-feeding bivalves and crustaceans for a week or two as well. Luckily, the ocean is good at washing itself out with several tides every day, and if the dry weather continues I might take a dip this weekend.
Here are the public health websites where you can read up on bacteria counts and beach advisories for the Northeast's major cities:
Maine Healthy Beaches
Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health
New York City Beach Quality Reports
New Jersey Ocean Beach Information - NJbeaches.org