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Great Lakes Article:

Officials want quicker way to assess beach bacteria levels
By Tom Henry
The Toledo Blade
08/02/03


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 mayor.

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.

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