Since I moved to Michigan, I’ve been fortunate to swim in, boat on, ferry across and snooze on the beaches of many of the Great Lakes. They’re beautiful — some of the prettiest and least crowded bodies of water and ribbons of sand I’ve seen anywhere. They’re one of the reasons I continue live in the Midwest. And as someone with an irrational fear of jellyfish and other saltwater creatures, I feel safe in the Great Lakes.
So in writing this post, I’m not trying to rain on my own or anyone else’s summer vacation (or destination marketing) parade, but….The other day I happened to see this article. It includes an interactive map of the country’s 200 most popular beaches and the percentage of samples indicating pollution exceeding national standards at each.
And in 2011, the latest season for which there’s available data, the EPA found 43% of monitored coastal beaches had at least one advisory or closure.
I vaguely knew contamination and “recreational water illnesses,” or RWIs, were an issue but I had no idea how common — not just in and around the Great Lakes, but inland lakes, sea coasts and even chlorinated swimming pools, too. The invisible but nasty stuff can include, among other things, giardia, cryptosporidium, E. coli and toxin-producing “harmful algal blooms.” Most of these and other pathogens are spread through fecal matter — of wild animals, pets and humans — and they can make swimmers and sand-castle architects anything from mildly ill to life-threateningly sick.
I’m certainly not saying we should stay out of the water and off the country’s beaches, but I do think we can be smarter about it. Here are a few ideas on how:
>Check for beach advisories and closings
>Avoid swallowing water while swimming, and don’t put your head underwater
>Stay out of the water if you have an open wound
>If you’re at an unmonitored beach, the EPA recommends not swimming near storm drains (that could potentially be carrying polluted water) and not swimming after a heavy rainfall
Not all beaches are monitored, and even monitored beaches are subject to rapidly changing conditions.
>Shower after swimming; bathe dogs that have been in the water or played in the sand
>Try not to let your dog drink lake water
Bring a bowl and offer your pup fresh, clean H2O, often. Dogs can be affected by waterborne pathogens just as humans can.
>Don’t be part of the problem
- Don’t go in the water if you have diarrhea or are experiencing other signs of gastrointestinal illness (or any other contagious illness, for that matter). Stay out of the water for two weeks after diarrhea stops.
- Change kids’ diapers in a bathroom, not on the beach.
- Keep a close eye on pets you bring to the beach and be johnny-on-the-spot with a poop bag. (Better yet, take Fido for a walk before you get to the beach.)
- Shower and wash well (i.e. leave no skid marks behind) before swimming.
- If you get sick after going to the beach or swimming and suspect it was caused by contamination, report it to your local health or environmental quality department. You might prevent someone else from becoming ill.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m planning a late summer roadtrip around Michigan, and you can be sure I’ll still be hitting the beaches around the Great Lakes. Don’t believe me? Look for me. I’ll be easy to spot since I’ll probably be wearing a hazmat suit.
For more information on monitoring practices, causes of contamination and other issues related to recreational water illnesses, visit these sites: