Welcome to the Brokelyn Files where our resident unlicensed P.I. Sam Weiss answers the local questions you never thought to ask. Got a lead on a Brooklyn mystery? Write us in the comments below.
Complaining about New York City beaches is a tradition as old and as sacred as complaining about the subway, complaining about the weather and complaining about cities that aren’t New York. The conventional wisdom is that, while we love the beaches, while we ride the A train (to the other A train to the S train) every summer for a day by the ocean, that all of our beach options are, well, gross. That swimming at Jacob Riis, Rockaway and especially Coney Island is an “at your own risk” situation, where we put up with bacteria, trash and urine for the sake of cooling off on an unbearably hot, humid afternoon. But are we right? Are those beaches actually as bad as we think? Or are they much worse and we really shouldn’t be swimming there at all? Or is it all just an exaggeration that New Yorkers perpetuate to keep the beaches from overcrowding? This week, the Brokelyn Files digs deep into environmental reports to answer a question you may not want answered: How gross are New York City beaches really?
First off, the answer to that question is actually easier to find than you might expect; New York City (at least until ordered to stop by executive order) provides a whole database of information about beach water safety. That list is updated every week and gives an “open,” “advisory,” or “closed” notice and a count of the daily and monthly average number of enterococci bacteria at every beach in the five boroughs. If you’re not a scientist or health freak, enterococci bacteria is a sometimes antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause a variety of illnesses in humans including meningitis, urinary tract infections and digestive problems. It’s also the U.S. federal standard for measuring water quality at salt water beaches because enterococci count is indicative of how much sewage is in the water.
In other words, it tells you how much poop is at the beach. And, while “zero poop at the beach” is obviously the ideal amount of poop at the beach, the EPA sets a limit of 35-colony forming units of the bacteria per 100 milliliters of water before they determine that beach too poopy to be safe for human swimming and makes the state put up warning signs.
So just how poopy are our beaches? Well, first the good news: Most of our beaches are hardly poopy at all. As of today’s count, there are no advisories at any public beaches in the city. Meaning that if you go to any New York City public beach today, it is within the EPA’s standard of non-poopiness. In fact, Rockaway Beach has a 30-day mean of 4 units per 100 ml of water (remember, the federal standard is 35, so that’s very good), which is the lowest of any public beach in the city. Breezy Point (a private beach, but the closest measured beach to Jacob Riis) also has a mean of 4. Coney Island, despite the time that I saw a bandaid on the sand, has an average of 6, but one day last week it got up to 9, which is still safe but definitely hews towards the stereotype that it’s the grosser option.
Now to the bad news: Some of our beaches are not quite up to snuff. Between the Bronx, Staten Island and on north coast of Queens, this month there are six advisories out on private beaches, meaning that they go past the EPA’s recommended poop-levels. The worst offender is American Turner Beach in the Bronx, which hit 102 this month, almost three times the EPA-limit, which by all definitions is disgusting.
While that list is the most updated and available one, it only measures one kind of bacteria in one-month increments so it tells us what beach is grossest today, but what about overall? The Natural Resources Defense Council puts out a report periodically that tests salt water throughout the year and across the beach and says how often their samples surpassed EPA standards. They haven’t released a report since 2014 and, if this month’s numbers are any indication, our beaches have gotten a little cleaner in that time. But the numbers still aren’t great. Again, Rockaway was number one, so grab some Rippers in celebration because in 79 tests across 8 spots on the beach, zero tests exceeded EPA limits. Breezy Point near Jacob Riis likewise came out clean with zero tests going over the limit. Coney, meanwhile, did not hold up as well. Parts of the beach, specifically West 16th St. near MCU Park where the Cyclones play, scored okay, with only one of 25 tests exceeding the limit. Just a few blocks away, though, at Ocean Parkway by Brighton Beach, it hit 9 percent, meaning that one in ten of the tests had a level of poop bacteria deemed unsafe by the EPA.
So, what does all that mean? Is the beach gross? Is it worse than we thought or better? All told, it’s safe to say that the most popular beaches, the most accessible from Brooklyn — Rockaway, Jacob Riis and Coney Island — are actually cleaner than you might expect, with Coney trailing slightly behind the others. It’s also fair to say, though, that a “gross beach” (which you could call at least Coney) really means “a beach with more poop-adjacent bacteria than the federal government deems safe, which could realistically give you meningitis or other diseases,” and that’s a lot more disturbing than the “sometimes you see weird trash or swim in a kid’s pee” meaning that I for one had in mind. So go to the beach, you’re probably in the clear, especially at Rockaway, but take a shower after and, if you really don’t feel like getting meningitis, check the bacteria count before you go.