- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

Swimming is one of summer’s most popular activities, and as temperatures rise, millions of people will head to the beach, pools, rivers and lakes.

But while local health department officials wish swimmers bon voyage, they also recommend cautious behavior in and around water to prevent waterborne illnesses caused by such germs as E. coli, Giardia and Crypto.

“We rely on people using their common sense,” says Bill Hayden, spokesman at Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. “Your eyes and nose are the first indicators. If the water doesn’t look appealing and gives off a bad odor, then it’s probably best to stay out of it.”

Outbreaks of waterborne illnesses seem to be a staple of the summer months, but there are precautions each swimmer can take to try to prevent getting or spreading the illnesses, which often cause gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, and skin rashes, says Dr. Robert Vowels, supervisory medical officer at the Environmental Health Science and Regulation Office with the District’s Department of Health.

“Bathe before you get into a pool. Normal bacteria can be washed off in the shower,” Dr. Vowels says.

Showering afterward makes sense, Dr. Vowels says, but he has not seen any study that proves it to be effective.

Good hygiene is especially important for diaper-wearing children who can’t keep track of or control their own hygiene, he says. It’s important to clean body areas that may have residual fecal matter with soap and water before entering the water, he says.

Children should have no access to the pool if they have diarrhea, he says. “Using those sealable diapers doesn’t help,” he says.

Having diarrhea can be an indicator that the person is a carrier of one of the germs.

The chlorine in a pool helps kill most germs, but it can take several hours for the chlorine to take effect, which is why the pool will be closed for cleanup if fecal matter is found.

Other precautions include trying not to get water in your mouth while in the pool.

Another pool-related, but not waterborne, public health concern is head lice. You can’t get them in the water, but by using other people’s towels, Dr. Vowels says.

While pools can be contaminated by human fecal matter, rivers and lakes are more often contaminated by agricultural runoff, which can contain animal fecal matter, says Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“The basic contaminants are fecal coliform,” Mr. McIntire says. “If the body of water is in a public area, there should be signage indicating if something is wrong.”

If there are any questions or doubts about a certain body of water, Mr. McIntire recommends calling the local health department.

Water quality can change very quickly, Mr. Hayden says. One day it can be pristine, and a few days later, often because of heavy rainfall, it can be contaminated to the point that swimmers and boaters may get ill.

“A good rule is, don’t go into the water a few days after a heavy rain,” Mr. Hayden says.

The reason is that heavy rains increase the risk of agricultural runoff, which can include fertilizer and fecal coliform. That runoff can go straight into an otherwise clean river or lake and make it a potential health hazard, he says.

“Last year, when there was very little rain, there was also very little pollution,” he says.

Anglers also should take precautions around the water. Anyone with a fishing license receives a guide that points out potentially contaminated waterways.

Advisories help fishers determine how much fish they can eat from a certain waterway before it might start affecting their health. But eating contaminated fish may not lead to urgent health problems, says Richard Eskin, acting director of the technical and regulatory services administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“It’s something that develops over time,” Mr. Eskin says. “A slight elevation in mercury, for example, might lead to an increased risk of cancer.”

The area beaches, including those at Ocean City and Virginia Beach, generally are very clean and are monitored regularly during the summer, according to local health officials.

“We haven’t had a beach closure in 25 years at Virginia Beach,” says Michele Monti, assistant director of waterborne hazards control at the Virginia Department of Health. “We have 24 monitoring sites there and 10 at Norfolk, and we do testing weekly between Memorial Day and Labor Day.”

Beaches at Ocean City also are tested weekly at eight sampling sites. Mr. Eskin says he knows of no recent beach closures at Ocean City.

But here, too, common sense prevails, Mr. Eskin says. “If there is stuff floating in the water and a shoreline full of needles and glass, I wouldn’t jump in,” he says.

While Maryland and Virginia have plenty of natural bodies of water for swimming, the only swimming water in the District is found in pools.

“There is no place in the District of Columbia where we would recommend swimming or fishing,” Dr. Vowels says. “In general, the problem goes to the issue of our combined sewer and storm system.”

When it rains heavily, the two systems combine through overflow, creating higher-than-normal fecal coliform levels in the natural waterways.

However, don’t assume that the water of a lake or river is clean just because it’s far removed from the hustle and bustle of a large city, Mr. McIntire says.

“Just because it’s in a rural area doesn’t mean it’s the most pristine. Humans have made an imprint everywhere,” he says. “Take a shower, or at least wash your hands good after re-creating in any waterway.”

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