As 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.
What 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.