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Playing It Safe At The Beach

2009 July 24

image of author taking a survey on the beachAs the Beach Program Coordinator for EPA’s office in Chicago, I’m often asked whether it’s safe to swim in Lake Michigan. My answer is yes, it is safe to swim in the lake, but there are things that swimmers need to know before they go to the beach to help keep themselves – and others – from getting sick at the beach.

When you’re at the beach, be sure to wash your hands as soon as you leave the water and always before eating anything. Don’t feed the birds, as their fecal matter can contribute to poor water quality and may cause beach closures. Also, be sure to use the bathroom facilities when nature calls, and encourage your friends to do the same. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the beach and hear people tell their friends they have to go to the bathroom – then watch them get up and walk towards the shore! The most important tip is make sure that you stay out of the water if you are sick, as you may share your illness with others.

Even though many beaches are regularly tested for bacteria levels, it can take up to a day to get water quality samples back from the lab, so water quality results aren’t posted until the following day. Being an informed swimmer will help keep you healthy. I generally tell beach goers that a good rule to follow is to avoid swimming during, and up to a day or two after, a rainstorm. Pollutants, such as fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste, may be washed off the land and into the water during the rain, which could pollute the beach water.

image of EPA tent at beachWhat do you do when you see a sign at the beach that advises against swimming? Swimming in contaminated water can make you sick, ranging from sore throats and diarrhea to more serious illnesses. EPA and CDC are currently studying the relationship between water quality and illness, and the results of the study, due out in 2011, will help better protect swimmers.

In the meantime, you can help make your favorite beaches better during your summer break by volunteering to adopt a beach! Go to the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ website to find out how you can become part of their Adopt-a-Beach program. Volunteers help collect data on different aspects of their beach to investigate pollution sources, collect and dispose of litter, and sample water quality; or check into the 24th annual International Coastal Cleanup on September 19. Let’s keep our beaches clean! Do you know of other ways to volunteer to keep our beaches clean? Share your stories and contacts with us here!!

About the author: Holly Wirick started with EPA in 1991 and has served as the Regional Beach Program Coordinator since EPA’s Beach Program was established in 1997.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Lina-EPA permalink*
    July 24, 2009

    Loved your blog. Thanks for the tips. Hadn’t thought about the consequences of feeding the birds and the impact on water quality. Good to know.

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    July 25, 2009

    This is teriffic information for all who use the beach to know and do. Another good thing would be to start a campaign to keep cigarette butts off beaches and peirs. This is not against smokers but against the butts. Cigarette butt rescepticals could be put up a various locations near the beach and points at the beach parking lot. The city council could be asked to make city beaches smoke free with a provision in the ordenance to cite smoking on the beach in the same way as parking violators in the beach parking lot are cited. I think smokers toss the butts out because they think they are small and made of cotton and will completely biodegrade. The filters are actually made from a type of plastic that takes a long time to degrade. The filters are designed to trap compounds from the tar and from the tobacco growing and harvesting processes including agents known to cause cancer. More importantly for ocean ecosystems, one cigarette butt contaminating one liter of water is enough to kill saltor fresh water fish. During yearly beach cleanups, cigarette butts can equal 50% or more of the litter collected. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  3. kaliq permalink
    July 25, 2009

    Aren’t there lifeforms such as mollusks that clean water? If so, why can’t we increase their populations? I thought nature has no problem with pollution absent the influence of man’s tremendous contributions!!

  4. Amrita permalink
    July 27, 2009

    Hi !

    Yes…swimming is one of the most enjoyable outdoor water sports that people of all age groups can indulge in. We all know the importance of staying fit and swimming is just as good a form of exercise as walking, jogging or cycling. Swimming also benefits a person’s cardiovascular system, improves muscle strength, flexibility and posture. Swimming provides a sense of freedom and removes lethargy from both the body as well as the mind.

    Just as the health benefits of swimming can not be underestimated, the dangers of not maintaining hygiene around the can also not be ignored. Never wear contact lenses while swimming as both your eyes and your lenses can get infected. Avoid swallowing or getting pool water in your mouth.Hair should be tied up and wear a cap before getting into the pool.
    Putting any kind of lotion should be avoided. If you have, make sure to wash it off during the shower and last but not the least always use clean washed towels and wash them well after every use.

    With Regards

  5. Johnny R. permalink
    July 27, 2009

    The beach is safe like the drugs advertised on TV, watch out for the side-effects and be sure to consult yoor doctor.

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