By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
There’s really nothing like swimming, splashing, and wading in the beauty of nature. As a child, I loved lake swimming at camp and driving to the “shore,” as we call it in New Jersey where I grew up. Today, my family enjoys spending time in Florida’s beautiful springs, oceans, and lakes.
However, as much as we enjoy these idyllic experiences, it’s important to remember that these environments can sometimes harbor dangers that may be invisible to the eye. While currents, marine life, and underwater hazards like snags and rocks are a separate concern, today we’ll be talking about recreational water illnesses, or RWIs.
Natural Water Bodies Can Be Contaminated
Although RWIs can certainly be contracted even in treated pool water, there are special considerations in natural water bodies. When we stop to think about it, there are many ways for such waterways to become contaminated. Livestock and wildlife waste, human waste from camping or other use in the area, malfunctioning water and sewage treatment systems, and polluted stormwater and agricultural runoff all contribute. These pollutants may be fairly obvious or completely invisible. Water is especially likely to be contaminated after a heavy rain or storm.
What’s in That Water?
What can you “catch” from swimming in unclean water? Bacteria, viruses, parasites, protozoa, and sometimes toxic algae blooms can all be a concern. They may cause gastroenteritis (“stomach bugs”– sometimes serious, and also the most common RWI), ear, nose, and eye infections, itchy rashes, and respiratory discomfort. A few quite serious and possibly fatal illnesses (Leptospirosis and Nagleria fowli infection) can rarely be caused by exposure to contaminated water, though this is very uncommon. (Most RWIs are mild.) Pollutants (road runoff, agrochemicals, manufacturing wastes, etc) may also be an issue, though these effects may be hard to quantify. Keep in mind that children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are always more vulnerable.
So how can we prevent RWIs? First, don’t swim or wade in areas not designated for swimming (especially in urbanized or highly agricultural areas). Avoid areas near storm drains, or obviously polluted water. Of course, always obey posted signs or advisories regarding beach closures.
Generally speaking, you can feel good about swimming in areas designated for swimming by city, state, and park authorities. These areas are usually monitored for water quality and will be shut down if found to be a risk to human health. On the other hand, unmonitored areas could contain contaminants at levels tens to hundreds of times higher than what is considered safe for swimming.
Want to know more? Information about ocean and Great Lake water quality and beach quality is available online from the EPA. Florida residents and those living in other Gulf states should be aware of red tides, a type of toxic algal bloom that can cause eye and skin irritation, sore throats, and respiratory irritation (as well as fish kills). You can learn more about red tide here; maps and a hotline you can call are available here.
Florida residents should also know about Nagleria fowli, an amoeba which can cause an extremely rare but generally fatal disease. This amoeba is most commonly contracted in warm water (freshwater only) in the hot summer months in warm areas of the country. Infection occurs when water goes up the nose. More info is available from the FL Department of Health here.
Second, use good hygiene and common sense when swimming (these guidelines apply to pools, hot tubs, and spas, too!) Most RWIs develop from swallowing water or getting it into your mouth when you swim, so be careful to avoid this. This is especially important to convey to young children. In general, you are less likely to contract an RWI if you do not submerge your head. If you do put your head under, follow these simple tips to help prevent swimmer’s ear after you get out.
Third, don’t allow anyone to pee or poop in the water, and make sure young children wear swim diapers that will contain any waste (check these often!) Of course, never go in the water if you have or have recently had a diarrheal illness, which can spread germs. When swimming, take children to the bathroom frequently, and use restrooms to change diapers (don’t do it by the water). Make sure everyone washes their hands after using the bathroom and before eating.
With these tips in mind, we hope you’ll enjoy a safe, clean swimming experience with no lingering “aftereffects”! Get out there and have a refreshing dip in the beauty of nature.
CDC. (2014). Oceans, lakes and rivers. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/oceans/
CDC. (2015). Recreational water illnesses. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/
EPA. (1997). Before you go to the beach. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/pdf/swimming/resources/epa-before-you-go-to-beach-brochure.pdf
EPA. (2004). Nationwide Bacteria Standards Protect Swimmers at Beaches. Retrieved from http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/lawsguidance/beachrules/bacteria-rule-final-fs.cfm
Florida Department of Health. (2014). HEALTH REMINDER: Dangers of Naegleria Fowleri. Retrieved from http://www.floridahealth.gov/newsroom/2014/06/060414-naegleri-fowleri.html
WebMd. (2007). Beware of recreational water illnesses. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/beware-of-recreational-water-illnesses
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