In a time when its air was perceived as purer even than mountain air, novelist Jane Austen described the seashore in her novel Sanditon as the panacean pleasure: "The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every disorder of the stomach, the lungs or the blood. They were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-septic, anti-billious and anti-rheumatic."
Eighty-some years after Austen penned these words, the ocean water and the fresh breeze that were once perceived as the ultimate summer tonic are now falling sick themselves.
Swim in water polluted with human and animal waste and you can develop symptoms such as stomachache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea or flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat and coughing. In highly polluted waters, people can be exposed to hepatitis, cholera and typhoid fever.
How are swimmers exposed to sickness-causing bugs? By swallowing contaminated water, mostly, but in other cases it's the result of direct exposure to bacteria via the skin, eyes or an open wound.
While some beaches post "No Swimming" or "Water Contaminated" signs to warn people away when pollution reaches unhealthy levels, don't count on signs alone to tip you off. Not all states have sufficiently stringent pollution monitoring and warning systems, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, (NRDC) which studies beach-water quality.
You can find out if your favorite beach is monitored regularly and posts swimming advisories by visiting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's BEACH program website.
For more water quality information, go to the NRDC's website.
Don't see signs at your ocean escape? Still, you're less likely to get sick if you follow this rule-of-thumb recommendation from John McCord, manager of education at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.: Don't swim for 72 hours after it rains, especially in urban areas. Explains McCord, "Every time it rains, all that pollution — all that motor oil, all those chemicals that are on our roadways as well as in our gutters — ends up coming down our storm drains and (into) the ocean."
In addition to these tips, you can play an important part in the pollution solution: Conserve water, keep septic systems working smoothly, dispose of boat sewage and trash when you get back on shore, dispose of pets' waste properly, and use natural substances like compost to fertilize your garden.