By Cheryl Blackerby
Lantana Beach was the first beach in Palm Beach County to get a “No Swimming Advisory” from the Florida Department of Health shortly after new, more stringent criteria for beach water testing went into effect Jan. 1.
But the January bacteria levels were so high, Lantana Beach also would have been closed to swimmers under the old guidelines.
The new criteria for tests for enterococci bacteria were recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after recent epidemiological studies showed disease risks from water with high bacteria levels are higher than previously thought.
“High levels of enterococci can indicate an increased risk of gastrointestinal illness, as well as infections in open wounds, and ear and eye infections.” said Tim O’Connor, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health Palm Beach County.
Lantana Beach’s advisory was lifted a few days later when bacteria levels dropped.
Because winds were high, the bacteria could have come from a cruise or cargo ship emptying a bilge in the Gulf Stream, although it’s a rare occurrence, O’Connor said.
High bacteria levels are generally associated with mammals, including people and wildlife, heavy recreational usage, spillage brought in by high seas or polluted runoff from inland lakes and waterways following heavy rains. It could even come from passing whales, he said.
Septic tanks have not been a problem, he said. “We really don’t find seepage. It’s more likely general runoff.”
The wading lagoon at DuBois Park in Jupiter got a no-swimming advisory in February, which lifted when bacteria levels dropped a few days later. It was the second beach to be closed to swimmers since the guidelines were put in place.
The Department of Health staff in Palm Beach County tests 13 beaches from Boca Raton to Jupiter every two weeks for enterococci bacteria and assigns designations of poor, moderate or good ranges.
“The new testing criteria lowered the level of enterococci bacteria about 25 percent,” O’Connor said. Under the new standards, no-swimming advisories are expected to increase from less than 5 percent of beaches tested to about 8 percent, he said.
“Beaches that were in the moderate range may now be in the poor range,” he said.
The new no-swimming advisory has been lowered from 104 or greater enterococci CFU (colony forming unit) per 100 milliliters of marine water to 71 or greater enterococci CFU per 100 milliliters. It is estimated that 36 of 1,000 people get ill from exposure to water with bacterial counts at or greater than 70 CFU per 100 milliliters.
Lantana Beach’s sampling showed bacterial levels in the water to be at 350 colonies per 100 milliliters of marine water, putting it in the poor range under both old and new guidelines.
Swimmers can monitor the water quality of beaches at www.flhealthpalmbeach.org.
If swimmers feel ill after swimming, they should contact their doctors or tell emergency room doctors that the illness may have come after swimming. Swimmers may also want to shower immediately after swimming. Ú