Beach Pollution: Causes and Effects (& Tips for Prevention!)

Marine pollution is a growing problem and concern. Pollution of coastal environments can limit our ability to use beaches for economic and recreational purposes. The majority of the pollution originates from human activities along coastlines and inland.

Pollution not only degrades and destroys coastal environments, but a polluted beach can also be a serious health risk and reduce local economic opportunities.

Continue reading to learn more about beach pollution causes, effects and tips for prevention.

What is Beach Pollution?

Beach pollution is considered to be any harmful substance that contaminates coastal environments, including lakes and oceans. It ranges from plastic, trash and litter to sewage, pesticides and oil.

It is estimated that every year a billion pounds of trash and other pollutants enter the ocean. Some of which end up on beaches, as it is washed in by the waves and tides. The remaining debris sinks to the bottom of the ocean and gets eaten by marine animals that mistake it for food or accumulate in ocean gyres.

Beach pollution is often a combination of chemicals and trash. This pollution results in environmental damage, and economic impacts and affects the health of all organisms.

Two Main Types of Beach Pollution

There are two main types of beach pollution: chemicals and trash.

1. Chemical Contamination

Chemical pollution or nutrient pollution has serious health, environmental and economic implications. This occurs when human activities, notably the use of fertilizers for agriculture, lead to the runoff of chemicals into waterways that ultimately flow to coastal environments.

An increase in chemicals, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, can also promote the growth of algal blooms that are toxic to wildlife and harmful to humans. This has negative effects on human and environmental health and can hurt local fishing and tourism industries.

2. Marine Trash

Trash encompasses all manufactured products, such as plastic, that end up in coastal environments. It is estimated that 80% of trash comes from land sources from things such as littering, storm winds, and poor waste management.

Plastic is particularly concerning because it can take upwards of 450 years to decompose.

Trash poses serious dangers to both humans and marine/terrestrial animals. Animals can easily become tangled and injured in debris or mistake items such as food.

Reports indicate that if trash and plastic continue to find their way to coastal environments, by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish (by weight) in our oceans.

6 Major Causes of Beach Pollution

There are many causes of beach pollution with most originating from land and caused by humans. Here are some of the major causes of beach pollution:

1. Littering and garbage

Littering and garbage can originate from many sources, but most commonly it comes from human activities on land. Marine litter is not pleasing and it can harm marine ecosystems, wildlife and humans.

Any trash that is not recycled or properly disposed of can eventually reach coastal environments during heavy rain events, through storm drains, or streams and rivers.

Litter and garage can find their way to coastal environments including:

  • People at the beach leaving behind their trash
  • Residential or commercial trash that is not properly disposed of
  • Fishermen losing or discarding fishing nets and lines

The Pacific Garbage Patch is one example of garbage collection in the ocean. This is an area of about 1.6 million square kilometers of floating plastics and garages that swirl around between California and Hawaii. Some have referred to patches such as this as islands of trash.

2. Overflows caused by rain or melting snow

Excessive rainfall or snowmelt can cause sewers to overflow if they exceeded their capacity.

Discharge from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) contain a mixture of raw sewage, industrial wastewater, and stormwater. This can lead to beach closings, shellfish bed closings, and aesthetic problems.

There are three main causes of overflows:

  • Stormwater runoff happens when rain or melted snow flows over paved land and cannot able to soak into the ground. It accumulates pollutants as it flows over land and eventually flows into coastal environments.
  • Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) can occur during periods of heavy rainfall when the wastewater volume exceeds the capacity of the sewer system or treatment facility. This results in raw, untreated sewage being dumped into lakes, rivers and coastal waters. It is not uncommon for raw sewage to appear on beaches, particularly in the Great Lakes basin.
  • Sanitary sewage overflows (SSOs) collect and transport industrial and domestic wastewater to a treatment facility. These pipes have a relatively small capacity, which means that raw sewage can leak out into nearby bodies of water during heavy rain.

3. Runoff

Runoff is considered one of the biggest sources of pollution. It is non-point source pollution, which means that it comes from many sources. Rainwater and snowmelt flow over land and paved surfaces (e.g. streets, parking lots and building roof-tops) where they pick up pollutants.

Pollutants and substances can include:

  • Pet waste and animal manure
  • Fertilizers
  • Pesticides
  • Chemicals
  • Gasoline
  • Motor oil
  • Antifreeze
  • Soil/sediment

The polluted water flows from land into storm drains, rivers, lakes, streams and into the ocean.

4. Discharge from ships and boats

Recreational and shipping boats accidentally and intentionally discharge various pollutants into the marine environment that can affect our beaches. Vessels release both oil and gas pollution in the water, especially if the engine is not properly maintained.

Other discharges include trash, fishing gear, ballast water, bilgewater, and water from sinks and showers.

5. Sunscreen

Sunscreen enters the marine environment in a few ways. It settles on the sand when applied, especially if you use the spray and wash it off when swimming in the water. The chemicals in some sunscreens can harm marine life and threaten coral reefs.

The chemicals can decrease fish fertility and reproduction, lead to coral bleaching, and can accumulate in dolphin tissue and be transferred to the young.

Chemicals in some sunscreens that can harm marine life include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Benzonphenone-1
  • Benzonphenone-8
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor
  • 3-Benzylidene camphor
  • Nano-Titanium dioxide
  • Nano-zinc oxide
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene

6. Nutrient Pollution

Nitrogen and phosphorus are naturally occurring. However, an overabundance can have a devastating impact on the environment and human health. An increased concentration of chemicals in coastal environments promotes the growth of algal blooms, which are toxic to wildlife and harmful to humans.

Sources of nutrient pollution include:

  • Industrial agriculture practices
  • Commercial fertilizers and animal manure
  • Animal waste
  • Common household items
    • Dish soaps and dishwater detergents
    • Cleaning products

Too much nitrogen and phosphorus can cause algae to grow much faster than usual. This growth is often referred to as harmful algae blooms, which can take over large sections of water. They are detrimental to aquatic ecosystems, block sunlight and deplete oxygen.

6 Major Effects of Beach Pollution

1. Health Risks

Polluted beaches pose a serious health risk to humans. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3.5 million people get sick from being in contact with sewage while swimming.

Bacteria, fertilizers, animal and human waste, and trash can cause a range of illnesses for beachgoers. Swimmers can suffer from an upset stomach, neurological disorders, respiratory ailments, pinkeye, earaches, meningitis, and hepatitis.

There is often a lag between contact with contaminated waters and the onset of systems, which means most people don’t realize it was the beach that made them sick. Polluted waters can also to the closure of public beaches because of public health concerns.

Pollutants can also make their way back to humans indirectly. Small organisms ingest toxins, who are then eaten by larger predators, many of which are seafood that humans will eat. When toxins in contaminated animals get deposited in human tissue, it can lead to long-term health conditions.

2. Erosion

Overuse of coastal environments can lead to a gradual degradation of habitat. For example, walking on dunes can destroy the plants causing sand to blow away or waves from boats close to shore can erode the beach.

Dunes are important natural features because they protect the inland areas from flooding and provide a unique habitat for animals and plant species.

3. Habitat Degradation

Pollution, whether it is chemicals or trash, can disturb and degrade marine and terrestrial habitats. For example, plastic pollution is affecting sea turtles’ reproduction rates because it alters the temperature of the sand where incubation occurs.

4. Harmful to Wildlife

It is estimated that beach pollution impacts over 800 wildlife species around the world. Over 100,000 seabirds, sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals die every year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in garbage.

Animals often mistake garbage for food, which causes them to choke, sustain an internal injury or starve to death. Animals most vulnerable to plastic debris in the ocean include dolphins, fish, sharks, turtles, seabirds and crabs.

Harmful algae blooms are determinantal to marine wildlife because of their oxygen consumption. They consume oxygen when they die and decompose, which often leads to the development of dead zones or areas with little to no oxygen. This can completely kill off the feeding sources for large aquatic animals and destroy habitats.

5. Climate Change

The coastal environment is vulnerable to climate change and its related implications. Pollution, both chemical and trash, is a major contributor to climate change.

Climate change has also led to an increase in extreme weather events, which can carry higher levels of pollutants to beaches more frequently.

Sea level rise is an enormous threat that is already affecting some coastal environments. Areas along the coastline, such as beaches, wetlands, and estuarine habitats, are at risk of becoming inundated or eroded.

Because of the rate of sea-level rise and the expected acceleration, many coastal environments will not be able to sustain themselves.

Beaches are at risk of inundation by sea-level rise or erosion. They would then be unable to protect coastal communities and the habitats of sea animals, birds, and other species.

6. Economic Toll

A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that beaches in the United States had experienced over 20,000 closing and advisory days in one year because of pollution and contamination.

Over 80% of closings were related to near-shore bacteria levels that violated public health standards.

Closed beaches directly impact coastal communities and their local economy. The ocean and blue economy play a major role in the U.S. economy.

Closed beaches due to pollution not only ruin the experience of local and visiting beachgoers but also impact local businesses and the tourism industry in the region. Many coastal communities depend on seasonal or year-round tourism.

Beach Pollution Prevention

At a high level, policy enforcement is an essential way to address pollution at a national level. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has the largest responsibility to enact preventative and reparative programs and laws to protect beaches.

Policy Solutions Include:

  • Limits to agricultural pesticides
  • Promotion of organic farming and eco-friendly pesticide use
  • Reduction of industry and manufacturing waste
  • Increased funding for state water-quality monitoring
  • Programs to inform the public about potential health risks
  • Encourage green infrastructure
  • Porous pavements, green roofs and parks and roadside planting absorb rainfall

Several actions can be taken at a personal level too that can help reduce beach pollution. Beaches are public spaces, but it is our responsibility to do our part to help keep them clean.

Everyday Solutions Include:

  • Rain barrels
  • Eating organic goods
  • Cleaning with natural ingredients
  • Avoid using chemical pesticides
  • Minimize plastic use
  • Opt for reusable bottles and utensils
  • Organize a beach cleanup or cleanup in your local inland area
  • Properly dispose of plastics and trash

Beaches are beautiful recreational environments that can be damaged or destroyed by pollution. Coastal environments are a huge part of our lives as humans and we need to protect them at all costs.

Related content: Things You Can Do to Help Save the Ocean

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