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Just think about this: Recreational water, which include beaches, generally contains a mixture of pathogenic (disease-causing) and non-pathogenic microorganisms. These microorganisms may naturally inhabit the water, or they may come from sewage sources, wildlife, farming activities, domestic animals, industrial processes or people. According to expert findings, all public swimming areas can harbor germs that cause recreation water illnesses (RWI). In fact…

  • RWI cases have increased substantially over the last two decades—as much as 200%.
  • 10 percent of water samples taken from U.S. coastal and lake beaches fail to meet safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

  • Of nearly 3,500 samples taken annually at beaches around the country, Great Lakes beaches have the highest failure rate, with excessively high bacteria levels.

How Dangerous Are Recreational Water Illnesses? As many as 3.5 million Americans are sickened from contact with raw sewage overflows each year, according to the EPA. In particular, swallowing water that has been contaminated with fecal matter puts many at risk. “There can be hidden dangers lurking in many of our waterways in the form of bacteria and viruses that can cause a great inventory of illnesses like dysentery, hepatitis, stomach flu, infections and rashes,” Steve Fleischli, water program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. These infections can be caused primarily by Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, which are most frequently transferred from one bather to another in crowded swimming areas. The majority of E. coli-associated illnesses are acquired by eating contaminated food, but some illnesses have resulted from consuming contaminated drinking water or swallowing swimming water. Disease-causing germs found in public swimming areas can potentially infect the:

  • Gastrointestinal system
  • Skin
  • Ears
  • Respiratory system
  • Eyes
  • Nose
  • Throat
  • Brain

How Can You Lower Risk? Children and the elderly are at particularly high risk of infection because of their weaker immune systems. But no one is immune, so here are some ways to stay safer in public waters:

  • Limit time in water
  • Do not swallow public water
  • Try not to dunk your head under the water
  • Shower before contact with public water
  • Shower after contact with public water

If you contract an infection after spending time in public water, contact your doctor, who can advise you regarding the most effective treatment options.