Officials want quicker way to
assess beach bacteria levels
By Tom Henry
The Toledo Blade
U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) and U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency officials will be at Huntington Beach
in Cleveland today to talk about developing a faster method
of detecting waterborne bacteria at Great Lakes beaches.
If perfected, the method could provide results in as
little as two hours. The turnaround time now is at least
a day or two.
The goal is simple: Give beach-goers a snapshot of conditions
when they arrive at a beach, not days later when nausea,
cramps, diarrhea, and other symptoms of excessive bacteria
exposure settle in.
Huntington is the second Great Lakes beach at which a
U.S. EPA laboratory technique developed in Chapel Hill,
N.C., is being used on a pilot basis. Water samples will
be taken and visitors will be selected randomly for follow-up
interviews, Dr. Tim Wade, a U.S. EPA epidemiologist, said.
The agency could be years away from developing the technology
to the point in which samples could be analyzed on-the-spot
with a hand-held device. But cutting the turnaround time
to two hours or less is real progress, he said.
Agency officials said their goal is to develop a hand-held
device so that beach operators can test their water in
the morning, have results within two hours, and be able
to tell swimmers and sunbathers about the day’s bacteria
level by the time they arrive.
"Ultimately, perhaps, [the tests] could be done
right there on the beach," Dr. Wade said.
The research is to be expanded to several more beaches
next summer, he said.
Currently, after samples are collected, they’re analyzed
for a minimum of 18 hours in a laboratory. Then health
agencies are notified, which in turn notify beach operators.
In reality, people rarely - if ever - learn the same
day they’re at a beach whether the water’s bacteria level
is too high for swimming.
Advisory signs posted at Maumee Bay State Park and other
beaches are based on a geometric mean, an average of the
five most recent sampling results.
Nobody knows yesterday’s, today’s, or tomorrow’s actual
bacteria level in Lake Erie near Maumee Bay State Park,
for example. Samples are taken there and at other sites
only on Mondays through Thursdays.
The Ohio Department of Health’s Web site yesterday showed
that part of the lake had a safe bacteria level on Tuesday
and Thursday, yet the swimming advisories were still in
effect because Monday’s reading, following a storm, was
nearly 10 times the acceptable level.
That sustains the average enough to keep the signs posted
this weekend, even though the day-to-day bacteria fluctuations
might not actually warrant them.
Confused? Officials confess the time lag, in essence,
keeps advisory signs posted on some days when they don’t
necessarily have to be posted and missing on some days
when they should be posted.
"We want to compress that down to a few hours, so
we’re essentially in real time. Then you can respond to
problems quicker," Mr. Voinovich’s press secretary,
Scott Milburn, said. "The value of it is self-evident."
Mr. Voinovich, a former Ohio governor, has been involved
with Great Lakes issues since his days as a Cleveland
On Thursday, he and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.), introduced
legislation to establish a fund to help provide more federal
grants that promote improved water quality.
Money for the fund would come from civil and criminal
fines meted out against polluters who violate the national
Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Act. Those fines amounted
to $52 million in the 2002 fiscal year.