From the Newburyport Daily News
BY CHRISTIAN M. WADE Statehouse Reporter
Environmental groups are calling on state officials to take steps to stop sewage overflows and pollution runoff amid newly released data showing pathogens posing health risks at more than half of the state’s beaches.
In 2022, 274 Massachusetts beaches were potentially unsafe for swimming on at least one testing day, according to Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center’s latest report on bacteria testing. That’s nearly half of the state’s public beaches.
At least 30 Massachusetts beaches exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safety threshold for fecal bacteria on one-quarter of days tested last year, according to the groups.
At King’s Beach in Lynn, bacteria levels are often hundreds of times higher than what is considered safe for swimming, prompting frequent shutdowns for swimmers. Tests of King’s Beach water found unsafe bacteria levels on at least 60 out of 96 testing days in 2022, or about 63% of the samples, according to the report. Sandy Beach on Plum Island tested for unsafe levels of bacteria on at least 12 of 16 testing days last year, or about 75% of the samples, the report’s authors said.
John Rumpler, Environment Massachusetts’ clean water director and co-author of the report, said pollution is “still plaguing too many of the places where we swim.”
“While past infrastructure investments have resulted in cleaner water in many places, we still have work to do to stop the flow of pathogens at some of our beaches,” he said.
Nationwide, at least 1,761 out of 3,192 beaches tested in 2021, or 55%, had at least one day on which fecal contamination reached potentially unsafe levels, according to Environment America.
Environmentalists blame stormwater runoff, combined sewage overflow systems, suburban sprawl, and in some communities manure from industrial livestock production for the contamination, among other causes.
The report makes a number of recommendations to protect beaches from pollution, such as tapping into federal infrastructure funding to close off combined sewer systems, like those along the Merrimack River, that often discharge raw and partially treated sewage into waterways during heavy rain events.
Beach water pollution can cause a range of illnesses in swimmers, including skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which monitors water quality in the state.
For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal, according to state health officials.
The incidence of infections has been increasing over the past several decades, and the numbers are expected to climb with coastal populations growing. Nationwide, an estimated 57 million Americans become sick each year from swimming in polluted waterways, according to federal data.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.