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Great Lakes Article:

County still testing for E. coli source
By Russell Lissau
The Daily Herald

The Lake County Board and other local agencies will pay for DNA testing this summer to investigate why dangerous bacteria appears occasionally along the Lake Michigan shoreline, forcing closure of area beaches.

Public health experts long have thought most of the E. coli bacteria that taints the water at the beaches comes from gull droppings, a hypothesis confirmed by a DNA study last fall.

The new tests will be performed with samples taken during peak summer months, when high levels of E. coli usually are discovered at the beaches. Officials say that should better indicate the source of the bacteria.

Once officials definitively know the source of the germs, they can create a plan to make the beaches safer for visitors.

"(If) you identify what the source is, hopefully you can do something about it," said county board Chairwoman Suzi Schmidt, a Lake Villa Republican.

The county board agreed Tuesday to contribute $5,000 to a new clean water trust fund that will pay for DNA testing of samples taken at various points along the lakeshore.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, North Shore Sanitary District, Illinois Department of Public Health and other agencies also are participating in the effort as part of a new water testing review panel.

The fund and panel were created by state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat who started studying the E. coli problem last year.

"Our most valuable natural resource is Lake Michigan, and included in that (are) the beaches," Garrett said Tuesday. "We need to be absolutely sure what is causing these high bacteria contaminations."

E. coli bacteria annually infects 73,000 people in the United States, causing about 61 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Infection can occur from swimming in sewage-contaminated water, drinking raw milk, eating insufficiently cooked beef and person-to-person contact. It can cause bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps and kidney failure.

The Lake County Health Department checks for E. coli at nine public beaches along Lake Michigan and, starting this year, the private beach at Great Lakes Naval Training Station near North Chicago.

Last summer, beaches were closed 205 times due to elevated E. coli readings, according to the health department. Nearly half of those closings were at two beaches, Waukegan's South Beach and the North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor.

A study performed last fall indicated gulls were to blame for most of the E. coli contamination that caused the summer's closings. Human sewage was identified as a source of E. coli at one beach.

Between May 22 and July 2 of this year, the health department has shut down the lake's public beaches 42 times because of bacteria. The Great Lakes beach has been shut down five times.

The most recent closings occurred Tuesday at Illinois Beach State Park's southern beach and Rosewood Beach in Highland Park, said Mark Pfister, an aquatic biologist with the health department.

With money from Garrett's clean water fund, experts at the University of Washington will conduct the DNA tests from samples taken after high E. coli levels are discovered.

Those samples will be compared with biological samples the university has identified, which should help distinguish the local contaminant.

If, as expected, gulls are to blame, solutions could include using other animals or machines to keep the birds away, Schmidt said.


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