Is it safe to go in the water this summer?

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When Ken Siegfried heard that the U.S. Consulate General in Hamilton, Bermuda, had issued a warning about ongoing dumping of raw sewage off the island’s south coast, he had flashbacks to a visit to the British territory last summer.

“I came down with a major ear infection on my third day there, which required immediate medical attention,” remembers Siegfried, a loan officer from Alexandria. His fever peaked at 102 degrees and he lost the hearing in one ear for two weeks.

“I’m wondering if this infection was caused by the raw sewage and the danger it can bring with it,” he says.

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When Susan Stirling caught wind of the warning, she found herself recalling her time in Bermuda. “When I went swimming, I recall black, greasy objects in the water. On those days, my Bermudan friends just blamed the mess on stuff coming out of the caves polluted by the U.S. bases,” says Stirling, who was a marketing director for a Bermudan business association for more than a decade before falling ill with a “rapidly growing” cancer and returning to her native Toronto.

Her cancer is now in remission, but she wonders whether the dumping contributed to her illness.

Bermuda is one of the most beautiful islands in the Atlantic, if not the world. With its dramatic cliffs, turquoise waters and trademark pastel cottages, it’s a destination everyone should visit at least once. And while these claims of coastal contamination appear to be relatively isolated for now, they do raise a broader question for travelers planning a summer vacation: How much do you know about the water you’re swimming in? And what is a destination obliged to tell you?

The consulate’s warning seemed to take visitors and tourism officials by surprise. It noted that last year, as many as five of Bermuda’s beaches were described as “unfit for recreational use” on various occasions, based on water samples. And it warned of bacteria levels from fecal contamination up to four times the acceptable U.S. standard.

“The government of Bermuda has announced that it plans to take measures to reduce or treat the outfall,” the consulate added. “But as of March 2014, the dumping continues unabated.”

The American consulate, citing a scientific study, warned of possible negative health effects for swimmers, include gastroenteritis, ear infections, respiratory illnesses and staph infections. It recommended that visitors who swim in Bermuda’s waters consider getting hepatitis A and typhoid immunizations.

Bermudan officials dismissed the consulate’s conclusions. Trevor Moniz, Bermuda’s minister of health and environment, issued a statement reassuring visitors that the island’s beaches are “safe for swimming and recreational use” and that water quality is being closely monitored.

In a follow-up conversation with Bermudan tourism authorities, a representative blamed the test results on events “that were short in duration, self-resolving, limited in scope and driven by very specific weather circumstances.” He added that health officials closely observe Bermuda’s beaches and test water samples for bathing quality twice each week at major beaches. The results, he said, continue to meet the U.S. standard for acceptable bathing water quality.

Early this month, Bermudan officials also announced that they would introduce a public alert system when pollution is detected in bathing waters around south shore beaches.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t issued any similar warnings about contaminated water in Bermuda. An agency representative, asked about Siegfried’s complaint, sent me a link to a CDC Web page about recreational water illnesses caused by bacteria but did not directly comment on Siegfried’s condition.

Stateside beaches can become contaminated, too. Who can forget the tar balls of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico four years ago? If you’re thinking of catching a few waves on your San Diego vacation, consumer advocate John Mattes warns that Imperial Beach is closed from time to time because of raw sewage pumped into the ocean from Mexico.

San Diego returns the favor, he notes. It’s the last city on the West Coast allowed to pump only primary-treated waste into the ocean.

Destinations do disclose water hazards in their own way. San Diego’s official visitor site, for example, euphemistically advises visitors to “steer clear” of beaches close to the border, warning that they could be “unsuitable for swimming due to large, hazardous surf, lack of permanent lifeguards and contamination from the Tijuana River.” It does not note the nature of the contamination.

Another warning sign: hotels offering “clean beach” guarantees, which happened after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. One Key West, Fla., hotel promised that if tar balls or oil shut down the beaches, it would refund guests’ room rate and taxes. In practice, these guarantees are almost never invoked, but their presence can be a sign that there might be a problem with the water.

Tourism authorities aren’t required to tell you about an oil spill, sewage being pumped into the ocean or any other pollutant, seen or unseen, that you might encounter. If you’re concerned about water quality, you have to do your homework before taking a dip. Your first stop should be the Environmental Protection Agency’s beach monitoring site, which issues reports on the possible presence of disease-causing pathogens in the water.

Maybe that was the CDC’s point when it sent me the information about waterborne illnesses. Whether you’re in California, on the Gulf Coast or visiting Bermuda, you take a risk anytime you go swimming.

Should destinations be required to inform visitors about beach pollution?

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17 thoughts on “Is it safe to go in the water this summer?

  1. Next time just swim in a properly chlorinated pool.
    This problem is ubiquitous. Everytime it rains hard, water carrying sewage has to go somewhere.

  2. Of course, the tourism folks aren’t going to tell you if there are problems on whatever beach you’re planning to vacation on. You need to check state health departments for alerts, as well as local news media. And see if you can find a web-cam. If it’s a sunny day at the beach and no one is in the water, there’s probably a good reason why.

  3. Most of these weather-related, rare occurences of beach pollution, as opposed to chronic, are caused by a large amount of storm water getting into waste sewers, overloading the waste water treatment plants. Then the raw or partially treated waste flows right into the beach water.

    A wise move is to avoid beach water immediately after an unusually large rainstorm, either a microburst or prolonged rain. This condition usually resolves itself (is sufficiently diluted) in a few days, rarely lasting more than a week.

  4. The problem with polluted water is worldwide. No country is immune to it.

    Texas is having problems along its coast with flesh eating bacteria. This strain is so powerful the only treatment is amputation of the infected part. This bacteria is in the water due to the lack of rain with the ongoing drought. Without the required flow of river water and rain, the coastal waters reach a perfect level of salinity where the bacteria flourish. Most people who have caught it were fishing and they got it through cuts or abrasions in their skin.

    I really like going to the beach, but now I know why I never liked to swim.

    1. Yeah, after reading that many urban areas have prozac in their water supplies then this ain’t surprising. It’s the price we pay for our lifestyle. The fertilizers that keep our lawns green and the weed killers end up in our beaches. Worse, we drink it.

      1. A few years back, we were fishing along the Salmon River in Idaho. 3 does came down the hill and entered the water upstream from us. They stopped, squatted and peed in the river and then all went back up the hill. You never know what goes into your water!

        1. Yup, it does not seem like people are still being educated to understand the consequences of their actions.

          Just look at the travel industry. The suppliers tried so hard to disintermediate the distribution. Look what happened. Many consumers have nowhere to seek valuable assistance or if they try they don’t want to pay for it. Technology has not replaced human thinking. It just made it easier and faster to transfer money from consumers to suppliers. The smart ones coped and gained from the efficiencies but the not so smart got fooled. We all get what we pay for.

    2. During the Bosnian war, one of the jobs given to our soldiers was to teach the locals what they should not be throwing into their waterways, so they would not remain the dumps that they were. The old idea that out of side is out of mind. We (the USA) were so guilty of it, too until we got schooled in the 1980’s. Look at the banks of many of our rivers. You will still see old cars that were placed there, never worrying about the gas and oil residuals, to keep the banks from eroding. You can still find these along river banks in our area 🙁

  5. I am so glad I prefer walking in the rain forest to basking on the beach! One just has to watch out for monkey overhead.

  6. I grew up on a sailboat before there were contained heads (bathrooms). We kept the boat in the CA Delta in the summer and knew never to go swimming in the river before 9am. We never got sick. We were in Waikiki a few weeks after the sewage spill into the Ala Wai canal. Played in the water at Waikiki Beach with no worries. Ever go on a paid snorkeling trip and give thought to what the person in front of you is doing while floating along? Ha!

      1. After the morning constitutionals have taken place. You let the current take things away. If it was slack tide in the morning you waited until the tide turned. I remember as a kid when we would take the boat to Tiburon, there was a restaurant which had the plumbing empty into the water.(very typical for the times even for such a chi-chi location) But at low tide the pipes were not covered so our entertainment was to watch for someone to flush 🙂

  7. A wise move is to avoid beach water immediately after an unusually large
    rainstorm, either a microburst or prolonged rain. This condition
    usually resolves itself (is sufficiently diluted) in a few days, rarely
    lasting more

  8. Good question. Any kind of alert such as this could put a hotel out of business.
    Perhaps it would be prudent for a hotel to offer an “advisory” to use the hotel pool rather than the ocean.

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