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America's Most Feces-Polluted Beaches, Mapped

The Atlantic Wire

There is nothing more refreshing on a hot, Fourth of July weekend than a nice dip in the ocean. Everyone loves a nice swim, after all, though that enthusiasm may be tempered by the fact that the EPA says a beach is safe for swimming if only one out of every 28 beachgoers gets sick. Here, as a public service, are the beaches that in 2012 upped those odds significantly.

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Every year, the Natural Resources Defense Council compiles its "Testing the Waters" guide to the cleanliness of beaches on the coasts and the Great Lakes. And every year, the results vary: Some of our beaches are consistently pristine; others, very much not. We took the data from this year's survey (documenting 2012 testing) and made three maps of the most popular beaches. The first shows the NRDC's star ranking, which includes both test results and the notifications posted when a beach tests poorly. The second shows how often tests exceeded the national standard for allowable pollutants (which we'll describe more below). The third shows the change in that figure between 2011 and 2012. And the fourth shows how often those beaches are tested for contamination.

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View: NRDC rating | How often the beach exceeded standards | Change since 2011 | Monthly quality tests

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The numbers and pins and data give you some information, but still don't convey the whole picture. For that, we turn to the NRDC's description of what it means when a beach exceeds national beachwater quality standards.

More than 80 percent of closings and advisories were issued because bacteria levels in beachwater exceeded public health standards, indicating the potential presence of human or animal waste in the water.

If a beach exceeded the national standard five percent of the time, that means that one out of every twenty samples had unhealthy levels of pollutants. Mostly fecal pollutants, that is.

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And then we come back to that sickeningly low "one in 28" standard. We mean that literally. That standard is set at a level that allows 36 gastrointestinal illnesses for every 1,000 swimmers. So there's just enough pollution allowed to ensure that only 35 people out of every 1,000 get upset stomachs from ingesting human or animal waste. (NRDC: "Just imagine a restaurant where 1 in 28 people were allowed to get sick—these are simply unacceptable standards.") So one out of every 27 people can get sick without the beach being closed. If you and 26 of your friends go to the beach, and none of them gets sick — you're lucky number 27.

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Remember, these data are from testing conducted in 2012. That's where the percent change map might be helpful. If you see a beach that got worse between 2011 and 2012, the change from 2012 and 2013 could be even worse still. 

There's only one way to know how clean the water is: testing. That why we've included a map that shows the number of tests conducted per month. If a beach is tested daily, it's a decent bet that the water is safer to swim in; after all, dangerous levels of pollution (from, say, sewer run-off) would be detected sooner.

One final note. If you don't live near the coast, and perhaps think that the chlorinated water of a swimming pool is a better bet: think again. Nothing wrong with taking a cold shower and sitting in front of an air conditioner until autumn rolls around.

Photos: Competitors in the intentionally dirty New York Merrell Down & Dirty National Mud and Obstacle Series. (AP)

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