Oak Bluffs closes four popular beaches for high bacteria counts

Swimmers enter the water at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs apparently unaware of the beach closure. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Oak Bluffs health officials closed four popular beaches Tuesday, after routine water testing showed high levels of enterococci bacteria.

Results from tests taken Monday led the town to take the action. The beaches are: Inkwell Beach and Pay Beach along Sea View Avenue; Medeiros Cove near Sailing Camp Park on Vineyard Haven Lagoon; and Eastville Beach on Vineyard Haven Harbor near the drawbridge.

Kathy Burton, chairman of the selectmen, made the announcement at the beginning of the board’s regular meeting Tuesday evening. Health agent Shirley Fauteux notified The Times and posted signs on the four beaches Wednesday morning.

The notices did not reach many beachgoers. One small sign was posted at the eastern end of the long stretch of public beaches along Sea View Avenue Wednesday morning, with many swimmers in the water. Several swimmers said they were unaware that the water could make them sick.

For the past three summers, no lifeguards have patrolled the beach, so there was no one from the town to inform swimmers of the prohibition against swimming. Funding for the lifeguard program fell to the town’s financial pressures.

West Tisbury took similar action Wednesday and closed six beaches. West Tisbury also closed four beaches last week for one day.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), enterococci bacteria are an indicator organism that may mean water is contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria.

High levels of enterococcus can cause skin irritation, vomiting, or diarrhea.

The Bureau of Environmental Health (BEH) posts beach water quality information on the Massachusetts Public Health Department website.

Water samples taken on July 11, showed enterococci counts of 2,420 colony forming units per 100 milliliters (cfu/ml) at each of the four closed beaches, about 24 times the threshold level, according to the department website. In marine waters, the accepted level of enterococci for a single sample is 104 colony forming units per 100 milliliters.

Enterococci are a group of bacterial species within the streptococcus genus, some of which (e.g. streptococcus faecalis) are typically found in human and animal intestines and are therefore present in sewage. These tests are also referred to as indicator organisms.

Any sample with a count greater than 104 cfu/100 ml is called an “exceedance,” which requires that the beach be posted.

The BEH advises that swimming in polluted water can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, respiratory symptoms such as sore throat, cough, runny nose, and sneezing, eye and ear symptoms including irritation, earache, and itchiness, dermatological symptoms like skin rash and itching, and flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills.

Most of these symptoms are minor most of the time but can occasionally be more serious, especially in sensitive populations (e.g. immuno-compromised children and elderly).

Last summer, beach closings occurred in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and West Tisbury during some of the busiest weeks of the summer season.

Beach closings have been a regular occurrence along the Massachusetts coast in recent summers.