Great white sharks have been driving beachgoers out of the water on the Cape, but an environmental advocacy group reports there is another serious threat on hundreds of beaches getting far less attention — bacteria.
Environment Massachusetts released a report Tuesday saying more than 200 beaches in Massachusetts contained potentially unsafe levels of pollution last year.
“Bottom line is that this problem is widespread. It’s happening on beaches all up and down our coastline, from the North Shore to the South Shore and the Cape,” said Ben Hellerstein, the group’s state director.
The report studied data disclosed by state and local authorities to the Environmental Protection Agency, and said that the main cause of the pollution is overflow from outdated sewage systems in which sewage and stormwater flow into the same pipes.
Hellerstein said if exposed to the bacteria, swimmers could be susceptible to a range of health conditions, from skin irritation to gastrointestinal issues.
“People shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick when they take their kids to the beach,” he said.
Hellerstein and Environment Massachusetts are urging legislators to pass a bill that would quickly send out alerts to the public when toxic discharge is found at any beach.
The bill is before the House Committee on Ways and Means.
“It is definitely needed,” said Karen Davis, who brought her 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old niece to Malibu Beach in Dorchester on Tuesday. “It’s very scary with small children, because they put their hands in their mouths and I have a fear of bacteria potentially causing some type of illness.”
Norfolk County beaches overall had the highest average percentage of unsafe days in 2018, according to the report, with unsafe levels of bacteria collected during 21% of the testing days. But of all the individual beaches studied, Provincetown Harbor’s beach had the highest percentage, testing positive for unsafe bacteria 50% of the time.
Hellerstein said this is a necessary short-term step to keep people safe, but the state needs to upgrade its sewage infrastructure so that the pollution does not occur at all.
But for now, he wants people to know that the issue exists so that something can be done to keep people safe.
“I think that as we see public awareness grow, we will see the desire for solutions grow as well,” Hellerstein said.
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