The most common reactions among Islanders and guests to the now-closed/now-opened Island beaches over the last three weeks are bewilderment and exasperation. Both are the frequent subjects of online comments to mvtimes.com and Letters to the Editor, in print. And both are understandable.
Health officials in the two towns have closed public and private beaches when the results of water quality tests showed high levels of enterococci bacteria, above the state standard for safe swimming.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), enterococci bacteria are indicator organisms that may mean water is contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria. High levels of enterococcus can cause skin irritation, vomiting, or diarrhea.
That’s what local health officials know. But health officials don’t know what causes the spikes in bacteria levels that have led to beach closings.
The caution that is evident in the state’s testing regimen and in the response by local health and recreation officials is admirable. One looks for nothing less. But, residents and guests do look for something more.
State health officials advise that swimming in water containing unacceptable levels of this bacteria may 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).
No one wants that. What would help is more information — distributed by health officials, perhaps in mailings to residents and property owners in the spring, or published on each town’s website — and prompt, detailed announcements of action taken daily to open or close beaches.
Most beachgoers now learn of the status of town beaches when they arrive at the beach and read a swim-/no-swim sign, or from mvtimes.com, where we try frantically to keep up with the changing rhythm of the closings and reopenings.
A review of some of the literature related to enterococci and e-coli contamination finds that, while the state’s acceptable levels of contamination and consequent actions may be sensible in a macro sense, they are hardly based upon a conclusive understanding of how the bacteria can exist in unacceptable concentrations in an ocean beach one day and be safely absent the next.
Plus, the actual existence of dangerous pathogens in the ocean water where the bacteria are detected is not generally measured.
Plus, a lot of the literature has to do with bacteria concentrations in swimming pools and other confined water bodies.
For example, how’s this for an unsatisfying elaboration of the issues, from a website called Oasis Design? The goal is to give readers a bit of scientific perspective.
“If a kid sneaks a swim in an un-chlorinated 50,000-gallon drinking water tank without wiping their butt, what is the likely level of contamination?
“Layperson version: 50,000 gallons is twice as big as a swimming pool. One buttwipe per swimming pool is the drinking standard, so half a buttwipe per swimming pool does not exceed the drinking standard.
“Scientist version: 50,000 is about 200 m3. A buttwipe is about 100 mg. So there is about 0.5 mg per m3, which does not exceed the drinking standard.
“Additional considerations: If the kid is known to have an infectious condition, the cause for alarm is greater. Also, the amount of fecal matter may not be average, it probably won’t all come off in the water, and the part of it that does will not be evenly distributed. Most likely, the particles will sink to the bottom or top. If the geometry of the inlets and outlets is designed optimally, almost none of it will make it into the water distribution system.”
A lot of disgusting variables there.
Residents and guests need to understand better what these beach closing actions are all about. So do health officials. But, even if the current state of scientific understanding about the threat announced by the presence of enterococci is inconclusive, more information on the subject will be welcomed by the public.