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Great Lakes Article:

Researcher blames beach closings on lack of testing
The Associated Press
05/10/03

MILWAUKEE The lack of a low-cost, quick test for illness-causing organisms is among problems causing municipalities along the Lake Michigan shore to close beaches unnecessarily, a researcher says.

Richard Whitman, chief of the Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station in Porter, Ind., said as many as half the days of beach closings on Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan last year might not have been necessary.

Whitman is co-author of a study that focuses on closings of Lake Michigan beaches in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

He spoke to more than 130 scientists and municipal officials attending a beach closing conference Thursday.

He said his ongoing study of Illinois beaches questions the current reliance on testing beach water only for E. coli bacteria as an indicator of recent fecal contamination.

Last month, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced that Door County will receive about $74,350 to monitor bacteria this summer. The county is receiving more money than any other county under the new statewide Great Lakes beach-monitoring program. Door has 53 beaches recognized in the program and 13 ranked high priority meaning they will be tested for E. coli bacteria five times weekly.

Whitman, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said beach sand and mats of algae floating along shorelines both harbor E. coli for long periods.

Growth of E. coli bacteria also is temperature-dependent, Whitman said, and as the water temperature rises in summer, E. coli concentrations increase.

Most forms of E. coli are harmless and live in the digestive tracts of humans and warm-blooded animals, which includes birds.

The exception is E. coli O157:H7, which produces a toxin that causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps and can lead to kidney failure or death.

The nontoxic E. coli do not cause intestinal illness, but they can indicate the presence of other pathogens.

To protect public health, we also should be measuring pathogens, Whitman said.

That will not be possible this summer because of high costs and long delays of up to five days in current tests for viruses and other disease-causing organisms.

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