A day at the beach is not a walk in the park
Most in our area are aware of the ongoing periodic problems with water quality at the Beltzville State Park beach near Lehighton, but these issues are not limited to Pennsylvania state parks. Beaches along the New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland shores, where thousands of area residents flock every summer, also are periodically afflicted with unhealthy water issues.
Usually conditions are not as bad as they were at Beltzville in 1988 when about 1,000 people became ill, the aftereffects of a gastrointestinal ailment called shigella.
Humans and birds can be a troublesome blend that can lead to these illnesses, but health officials are constantly on alert for elevated bacteria levels.
The most recent beach closing at Beltzville was from July 10-12.
Of the thousands of visitors, many are youngsters who are as likely as the geese to relieve themselves in the beach area. Even small amounts of infectious fecal contamination can lead to disease and possible widespread outbreaks.
For more extended stays, many local residents head for popular New Jersey beaches, such as the Wildwoods, Ocean City, Atlantic City and points north.
The New Jersey Department of Health is responsible for setting sanitary and safety regulations for public recreational bathing beaches, and this department is not hesitant to close beaches where bacteria levels exceed statewide standards.
Each week, recreational beach water quality monitoring is performed at nearly 200 ocean and 35 bay locations along the Jersey shore. Samples are analyzed for the presence of enterococci, a type of bacterium found in animal and human waste that is an indicator of contamination.
When a sample exceeds the state standard, a swimming advisory is issued, triggering additional sampling on a daily basis until the sample returns to acceptable levels.
If two consecutive daily samples exceed the standard, the beach is closed until the situation is cleared up.
Samples that fail to meet water quality standards indicate that there is an increased risk of illness. Swimming in or contact with polluted water can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain and respiratory symptoms such as sore throat, coughs, runny nose and sneezing.
Other possible ailments include eye and ear irritation and infections and dermatological symptoms such as skin rash and itching and flulike symptoms such as fever and chills.
While these symptoms are minor most of the time, they can occasionally be more serious, especially with children and the elderly.
The New Jersey Health Department also says that people should not swim with open sores and see a doctor if a cut becomes infected after water exposure.
Eating seafood from contaminated waters can also cause gastrointestinal distress, the department says.
In addition to bacteria monitoring, regional health and enforcement agencies may close beaches at any time at their discretion to protect public health and safety. This can include jellyfish and shark warnings, too.
During the past week, for example, water quality advisories were issued for three Ocean County locations — Barnegat Light, Bay Head and Brick Township. None of the three had to be closed. There have been no closings or advisories so far this week at beaches in Ocean, Cape May, Atlantic or Monmouth counties.
The department says that every time it rains, water flows across the landscape, lawns, streets and parking lots, and this untreated stormwater flows into waterways, picking up trash, toxins and other pollutants that can kill wildlife, destroy habitats and affect swimmers.
Several advisories were issued earlier in the summer for beaches at Ocean City, Maryland and Rehoboth Beach, Slaughter Beach and Lewes, Delaware, but the issues were corrected. There are no closings or advisories at any of these popular bathing areas so far this week, according to the Worcester County (Ocean City) and Sussex County, Delaware, departments of health.
My purpose is not to put a damper on your beachgoing plans but to make you aware of the potential dangers. It’s always a good idea to check with the appropriate state agency to find out whether there are any warnings posted for the beach you plan to visit.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org