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Ask Dr. Nandi: Great Lakes Beaches and Bacteria Levels

Posted: 11:11 AM, May 30, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-30 11:20:37-04

Swimming season is here again. People are packing their towels and sunblock to spend a day at the beach. But there are unseen dangers lurking in the water that could make you really sick.

Question: So, what is the danger in beach waters?

Well, the danger is due to a tiny bacteria that you've likely heard of before - E. coli. The numbers of this bacteria rise during summertime and so do related infections. Now since the warmer weather is here, many public beaches across the state have begun regular water testing to monitor bacteria levels. The health risk becomes real when the levels of this bacteria rise to more than the designated level of 300 E. coli per 100mL of water.

Question: What is the health risk?

E. coli is a normal part of the human digestive system in both people and animals. And it finds its way into our lakes and water in many ways such as sewer overflows, weak infrastructure and agricultural and storm runoff. In fact, we often see spikes in water bacteria counts after heavy rainfall and high wind advisories. So how does this affect our health? Let me tell you, if you are infected by the nastiest form of the bacteria, you will likely suffer from symptoms of diarrhea, cramps, nausea or vomiting about 3 to 4 days after ingesting contaminated water. Those symptoms will generally clear up within a week, but in immunocompromised individuals, the elderly and the young, a potentially life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome can develop. But the good news is that only rare forms of this bacteria are really dangerous.

Question: What can we do to protect ourselves?

Well, there isn't a vaccine or any medication available that can protect you from an E. coli infection. I recommend you avoid beaches that have posted unsafe water levels. Typically you can find this information online through the Michigan BeachGuard System before heading out the door. If we have heavy rains, this can make a beach unsafe. So it’s best to avoid the sand and water for three days after a bad storm or high winds.