Pathogens pollution threatens our health
Swimming or other forms of contact with contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illness as well as respiratory disease, ear and eye infection, and skin rash. Each year, there are an estimated 57 million cases of illness in the U.S. resulting from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds. The vast majority of these illnesses go unreported.
Contaminated water can also trigger health warnings or closures that interfere with our ability to enjoy public bathing beaches. Around the country, for those public bathing beaches that are part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Beach Advisory and Closing On-line Notification (BEACON) Program, there were more than 8,700 health warnings or closures in 2022.
The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership works to meet a need for water quality data at “non-bathing” public access beach sites along the Raritan River for which there is no federal pathogens monitoring or BEACON reporting program. We have identified six public access non-bathing beaches where we have observed individuals swimming, fishing, boating, jet-skiing or engaging in other direct contact activities with the Raritan River in ways that may put them at risk for illness if the water is contaminated by pathogenic pollution.
Where does pathogen pollution come from?
Significant sources of pathogen pollution that can make swimmers, fishers, boaters, jet-skiers or others sick include stormwater runoff, sewage overflows and in some places, manure from livestock.
Two trends have increased the pollution risk in New Jersey from these sources:
- Development. The addition of impervious surfaces – such as warehouses, big box retail landscapes, parking lots and roads — increases the flow of polluted stormwater into our streams, brooks, and rivers, and coastal waters. Paving over wetlands or forests that had once absorbed rainfall and filtered pollution makes this problem worse. From 1996 to 2016, U.S. coastal areas added 4.2 million acres of development, while losing 640,000 acres of wetland and almost 10 million acres of forest. According to the EPA’s 2022 BEACON report, approximately half of all beach closure and notification events for which a cause could be determined were triggered by runoff.
- Outdated and deteriorating sewage systems. Sewage is a particularly dangerous threat to beach safety because it contains bacteria, viruses and parasites that are prone to cause disease in humans. Unfortunately, sewage infrastructure around the country is inadequate or in poor repair, enabling raw sewage to find its way into our waterways.
Sanitary sewers, the systems used in most of the country, can spill dangerous sewage if sewer lines become blocked or if poorly maintained pipes break or allow infiltration of stormwater through cracks, overwhelming the capacity of the system. Sanitary sewers overflow as many as 75,000 times each year in the U.S.
Combined sewers are outdated systems that combine stormwater and sewage into a single pipe. Still present in more than 700 municipalities across the country and in more than a dozen municipalities in New Jersey, many of these systems are designed to discharge raw sewage directly into nearby waterways during heavy rain events.
Private septic systems, which are used by approximately one in four Americans, are also a major source of sewage pollution that affects our waterways.
What can we do to reduce pathogens pollution of our waterways?
Congress took a big step to reduce the threat of pathogens pollution by passing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (otherwise known as the bipartisan infrastructure law) in 2021. The law not only directly provides $11.7 billion for sewage and stormwater projects but also authorizes an additional $14.65 billion for that purpose. (The EPA estimates the actual need for wastewater infrastructure at $271 billion.)
However, there is much more we can do to protect and improve water quality in our waterways. Local, state and federal governments should:
- Prevent runoff pollution by increasing public investment in natural and green infrastructure features such as rain barrels, permeable pavement, urban green space and green roofs; requiring the use of green infrastructure in new development; and protecting natural infrastructure such as riparian areas and wetlands that filter pathogens and other pollutants.
- Prevent sewage pollution by repairing, modernizing and expanding access to sewage systems using funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law and other sources; enforcing pollution limits for sewage treatment plants; and ensuring proper maintenance of residential septic systems.
- Protect wetlands, which reduce beach contamination by absorbing floodwaters and filtering out pollutants. State and local protections for our remaining wetlands are increasingly urgent after the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA erased Clean Water Act safeguards for many of them.
- Expand and improve beach testing to identify beaches where pollution puts public health at risk and ensure the safety of the public.