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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Bacterial levels lower at area beaches

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With the Dog Days of August upon us today, people generally have about a month left to enjoy themselves at area beaches before settling into fall activities after the Labor Day weekend.

This August, they can take some comfort knowing that the bacteria levels at northwest Ohio's public beaches have - for the most part - been slightly lower than normal.

With the exception of Lakeview beach in Lorain County and Catawba Island State Park in Ottawa County, the situation has been a little better than in past years. Swimming advisories have been in effect at Lakeview all but one day since June 8, while advisory signs went up at Catawba Island State Park on July 20.

Swimming advisories also were posted Wednesday for the first time this summer at Maumee Bay State Park's inland pond. The park's Lake Erie beach had advisories posted for two brief interludes in June, but made it through July without warnings issued - one of the few times that has happened over the past decade.

Overall, northwest Ohio has had fewer postings this year than in recent years. Port Clinton's beach, plagued by bacteria much of last summer, hasn't had a single posting this summer.

Mike Oricko, Lucas County environmental health director, said he and other veteran bacteria-trackers are hardly patting themselves on the back and getting complacent. They acknowledge the low counts are largely a reflection of this summer's relatively calm weather.

The general advice: Don't swim within 24 hours of a storm or if strong winds cause a lot of wave action. Both stir up sediment in which bacteria can hide, Mr. Oricko said.

The always-fickle situation at Maumee Bay State Park has officials on their toes again. The park has recorded scattered, single-day bacteria spikes the past two weeks, as high as 308 colonies per 100 milliliters of E. coli bacteria at its Lake Erie beach on Monday and 365 colonies per 100 milliliters at its inland beach on Tuesday, records show.

But the highs and lows have been somewhat erratic, rejuvenating the debate over whether the Ohio Department of Health's trending analysis sufficiently protects public health. The advisories are merely a warning and public access to the affected waters is not barred.

The state health departmentmakes its recommendations for postings based on a complicated logarithmic formula in which the five latest test results are converted into what's known as a geometric mean, with the average weighted by various factors.

When the mean level exceeds 126 colonies per 100 milliliters of E. coli bacteria, the agency recommends that the signs go up. Critics have argued the time lag is too long, because it takes several days of sustained high readings to drive up the average.

"Nobody likes it. But it's the best we have now," Mr. Oricko said. "We need something immediate."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of a multiple-year study to develop a faster technique for determining beach bacteria - in as little as two hours - thereby providing swimmers the convenience of same-day results. The current protocol at Ohio's public beaches requires a turnaround time of more than 24 hours in the laboratory, then results get sent off to the state Department of Health's headquarters in Columbus for another day of review.

The potential for a new evaluation technique is being researched by a U.S. EPA laboratory in Chapel Hill, N.C. The study is expected to take at least four years, with the first two years spent in the field at four freshwater Great Lakes beaches.

Huntington Beach in Cleveland was one of two studied last year. The other was West Beach in Indiana, part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Silver Beach in St. Joseph, Mich., and Washington Park beach in Michigan City, Ind., were used for this summer's pilot studies, said Dick David, a U.S. EPA spokesman.

Timothy J. Wade, a U.S. EPA epidemiologist involved with the study, said the research will move on to saltwater beaches the next two years.

While results from Huntington and other Great Lakes beaches are too preliminary to discuss in detail, they "seem promising, but there are caveats to that statement," Mr. Wade said. He said he plans to present an outline of the project Tuesday at the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in New York.

The potential new evaluation technique would shorten the time lag by having lab scientists focus on the DNA of a specific strain of bacteria other than E. coli. The longstanding protocol requires waterborne bacteria samples to be cultured and grown overnight for study.

The U.S. EPA interviewed more than 5,000 swimmers last year and hopes to interview at least another 5,000 this summer and in future years. Participants receive follow-up phone calls 10 to 12 days after they have visited beaches to determine if they contracted any health problems. U.S. EPA scientists then evaluate whether any DNA symptoms they might have found during their two-hour lab research can be relied upon to predict whatever health problems swimmers may have encountered, such as nausea, cramps, or vomiting, Mr. Wade said.

Numerous Great Lakes beaches have been plagued for years by high bacteria counts, leading people to wonder if pollution has gotten worse or if the scientific ability to detect a problem has just become more sophisticated.

Maumee Bay State Park's Lake Erie beach has traditionally been one of the problem areas. Yet 30 miles to the east, one of the state's oldest public beaches at East Harbor State Park has consistently ranked among the cleanest.

Theories about the bacteria problem at Maumee Bay State Park's Lake Erie beach have ranged from animal runoff in nearby ditches to human waste from faulty septic tanks. Many of the septic problems have been resolved, officials have said. They have broadened their search at times to include sewage discharges from the Detroit River, and the interplay between Maumee River runoff and the powerful Lake Erie water intake of FirstEnergy Corp.'s coal-fired Bay Shore power plant.

But none of those theories has provided a smoking gun. The search continues for the primary bacteria sources.

The problem at Maumee Bay's man-made inland beach has been easier to control, because it has been attributed largely to excessive droppings from ducks and geese. Officials are keeping their fingers crossed for a mild August.

"The weather has been cooler. We haven't had the major storm events driving the waves into the shorelines and up from ditches," Jim Brower, park manager, said.

Mr. Oricko agreed: "To be perfectly honest, the weather deserves some credit here."

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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