Beach Health & Water Quality

Millions of people in the Great Lakes region are hitting the beach each year-but red flags and "no swimming" signs often crush hopes for a leisurely day spent at the water's edge. While there are a number of reasons to shut down beaches for the public, including dangerous waves or eroding dunes, the principal cause for beach closings and advisories is water pollution caused by elevated levels of bacteria. The presence of certain bacteria such as E. coli indicates the presence of human or animal wastes in the water. If bacteria counts are high enough that there is a risk of illness, a "Water Quality Advisory" is issued.

Beach Recreation and Swimming around the Great Lakes

Many people in the region live within a short drive's distance of the Great Lakes. Water-related activities have become an important part of our culture and greatly add to the region's quality of life. Residents enjoy going to the beaches in the summer and swimming in the water. Healthy beaches and clean water are also part of the image used to market the Great Lakes as a tourist destination.

Polluted Beaches are a Public Health Issue

Water and sand that are polluted with untreated sewage or with human and animal wastes may contain harmful bacteria or other disease-causing microorganisms (pathogens). These pathogens can afflict swimmers, kayakers, or surfers when they ingest the contaminated water or sand. Children are most at risk because they may put contaminated sand or water in their mouth. People exposed to pathogens risk contracting numerous illnesses including gastroenteritis; hepatitis A; ear, nose, and throat infections; severe respiratory ailments; diarrhea; and rashes. Although these diseases rarely pose life-threatening risks, they may cause discomfort and can result in economic losses to society from lost days of work. The health risks are more severe for children, the elderly, expectant mothers, and persons with compromised immune systems.

What are the health risks?

Animal and human waste contain disease-causing organisms that may survive in marine waters, posing a risk to human health. This waste comes from a number of different sources.

Direct Health Effects

Gastroenteritis is the illness most commonly associated with swimming in water contaminated by sewage. Symptoms associated with gastroenteritis include nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache, and fever. Viruses are believed to be the major cause of swimming-associated illnesses, which include gastroenteritis, hepatitis, respiratory illness, and ear, nose, and throat problems. Bacterial pathogens can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomachache, nausea, headache, and fever. Protozoan parasites can cause giardiasis, amoebic dysentery, skin rashes, and pink eye.

In highly polluted water, more serious illnesses can be contracted such as hepatitis, cholera, and typhoid fever. Drinking water contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella has led to fatalities in some cases.

Secondary Health Effects

Chlorination is the most commonly used and least expensive treatment technique used by public water supply systems. However, there are some concerns about unintentional disinfection byproducts that may form when chlorine combines with natural organic matter in the water. Detected disinfection byproducts include a group of chemicals called trihalomethanes (THMs), which have the potential to cause cancer in humans.

Who is at Risk?

Everyone who uses nearshore waters for recreational purposes-be it swimming, kayaking, surfing, or fishing--can be exposed to waterborne pathogens. However, children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to becoming ill.

Pathogens can persist in sand longer than in water. Though water is off-limits during a beach closure, sand contact is still allowed. This can put children at risk if they put contaminated sand in their mouths. Despite the risk to children from exposure to contaminated sand, beach closings are based solely on water concentrations of bacteria.