But if you've ever been to a beach after a heavy rainstorm, or swum near a heavily populated urban area, chances are, you were swimming in something akin to a toilet. Spillage from wastewater treatment plants, pet waste from people's yards, and numerous other unknown sources of pollution raise levels of illness-causing bacteria in beach water to unsafe levels, according to a new 2013 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
"Many places don’t know what is causing the pollution. It often varies from beach to beach," says NRDC senior attorney Steve Fleischli, director of the group's Water Program. "Some things are unavoidable," he adds. But it is clear what all that pollution causes: a roaring case of diarrhea (the most common side effect of swimming in dirty water), dysentery, pinkeye, and a host of other illnesses. On average, 35 million people get sick from dirty beach water every year. (Don’t let illness ruin your vacation. Take along these 5 Fixes for a Better Beach Trip.)
So where are you most likely to get the worst beach souvenir ever? In 2012, bacteria levels at 115 beaches in 18 states exceeded legal safety standards more than 25 percent of the time, and the highest percentage of those border the Great Lakes. Some bacteria-ridden beaches are repeat offenders. From 2008 to 2012, these are the beaches NRDC found to have illegally high bacteria levels:
• Los Angeles, CA: Avalon Beach
• Orange County, CA: Doheny State Beach
• Orange County, CA: Poche County Beach
• Lake County, IN (bordering Lake Michigan): Jeorse Park Beach
• Ocean County, NJ: Beachwood Beach
• Monroe County, NY: Ontario Beach
• Ashtabula County, OH: Lakeshore Park
• Cuyahoga County, OH: Euclid State Park
• Cuyahoga County, OH: Villa Angela State Park
• Erie County, OH: Edson Creek
• Milwaukee, WI: South Shore Beach
The cleanest beaches? Fortunately for vacationers, they do exist. NRDC awards five-star ratings to the beaches that violate health standards less than 5 percent of the time and are in areas where public health officials test water more than once a week (the minimum EPA requirement) then notify the public promptly both at the beach and online when safety standards have been exceeded.
Here's this year's list of five-star-rated beaches:
• Alabama: Gulf Shores Public Beach
• Alabama: Gulf State Park Pavilion
• California: Bolsa Chica Beach
• California: San Clemente State Beach, Avenida Calafia, Las Palmeras
• California: Newport Beach, 38th Street, 52nd/53rd Street
• Delaware: Dewey Beach
• Delaware: Rehoboth Beach
• Maryland: Ocean City at Beach 6
• Michigan: Bay City State Recreation Area
• Minnesota: Park Point Franklin Park/13th Street South Beach
• Minnesota: Lafayette Community Club Beach
• New Hampshire: Hampton Beach State Park
• New Hampshire: Wallis Sands Beach at Wallis Road
If your favorite beach didn't make the list, see how it fared on NRDC's searchable database of all 3,000 beaches the group analyzes. Enter the zip code closest to where you vacation and you can pull up information on all the public beaches in the area.
In general, no matter where you dig your toes into the sand, it's a good idea to be a good steward and a smart swimmer, says Devine. A few key ways to do that:
• Clean up after yourself and your pets to prevent garbage and dog waste from getting into the water.
• If you're a boater, dispose of your sewage properly onshore.
• Choose beaches that are next to open waters 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.
• Avoid swimming in beach water that is cloudy or smells bad.
• Avoid swimming for at least 24 hours after heavy rains, which can wash pollution into the water).
• Wash your hands before you eat and after you play in the sand. (Yes, even Dirty Beach Sand Can Make You Sick.)
• Download this app. The nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance recently debuted a new app, Waterkeeper Swim Guide, that helps you find clean beaches anywhere, even if they don't border an ocean. The guide rates beaches along all bodies of water that have a "keeper," whether it's your local creek or your favorite ocean vacation spot, based on bacteria monitoring the group conducts weekly.