As you wade into the ocean in South Florida this Labor Day weekend, potential health risks lurk at some beaches.
Florida’s rainy summer and the recent storm make some beaches more treacherous to swim in because of higher levels of fecal contamination. People who come into contact with contaminated water can experience gastrointestinal illness, ear and eye infections, and skin rashes.
During storms, beaches can become inundated with runoff when rain overloads sewers and untreated wastewater, bringing bacteria into the ocean water. Enterococci, a type of fecal bacteria, is resilient and thrives in Florida’s warm waters, which have reached record high temperatures this summer.
The health departments in the state’s coastal counties test their beaches regularly for fecal bacteria levels as part of the state’s Healthy Beaches program. They last were tested on Aug. 28, before Hurricane Idalia brought rain squalls to South Florida.
Dubois Park in Jupiter in Palm Beach County, as well as Haulover Beach and Key Biscayne Beach in Miami-Dade County, tested poor during August.
Health officials have just lifted the swimming advisory for Crandon Park North and South in Miami-Dade County, which was issued on Aug. 24. They had asked the public to avoid swimming in both the north and south areas of the park and reported that several consecutive water samples “did not meet the recreational water quality standard for enterococci.”
The threshold for high enterococci bacteria is 71 colony-forming units — or CFU — per 100 ml of beach water. Some beaches have levels beyond what is considered good quality, but not as high as 71.
The local beaches showing moderate levels of bacteria during August are Phil Foster Park and Lake Worth Beach in Palm Beach County; Deerfield Beach Pier, Hallandale Beach, Dania Beach, Harrison Street, John Lloyd Park, Sebastian Street and Commercial Boulevard Pier in Broward County; and Dog Beach in on the south side of Virginia Key in Miami-Dade County.
“I want good water quality to go swimming, not moderate or poor,” said Stephen Leatherman, a professor of Earth and the Environment with Florida International University. “People can swim in the water and not get sick, but if you have kids that tend to swallow water a lot, or cuts on your leg, that would not be good. Keep your head out of the water if you do go in, and when you come out, shower off.”
Not all the counties alert beachgoers of water quality issues, even when bacteria levels are exceptionally high. When two consecutive beach water samples do not meet water quality standards, Palm Beach County regularly issues alerts. Broward County rarely sends out alerts.
No one tracks the number of people who swim at the beaches daily, so there’s no telling how many ventured into contaminated water, or will swim in it this holiday weekend.
The Surfrider Foundation, an ocean protection advocacy organization, wants to improve public notification practices used to inform beachgoers of elevated bacteria levels and sewage spills.
In June, the Surfrider Foundation sampled water from around the United States and found unsafe levels of fecal contamination in 19% of the 9,095 water samples, including nearly 1,500 water samples from Florida. Of the sites sampled, 61% had at least one sample from last year that tested above the recreational water health standard.
“As Florida experiences the compounding impacts of climate change and chronic pollution, it is urgent that the state’s beaches and waterways are subject to rigorous water quality testing and adequate public notification to ensure beachgoers truly know when it is safe to surf and swim,” the Surfrider Foundation’s Clean Water Report says.
Experts recommend swimmers avoid going near piers or jetties where water may stagnate and not circulate.
Another concern at the beaches this week are the dangers of what may have blown in with the wind gusts from the Hurricane Idalia — Portuguese Man O’ War. Experts regularly see an increase along beaches in the wake of Atlantic Ocean storms.
“Man O’ War can be nasty, so people need to be aware of that,” Leatherman said
Rip currents are a concern too. The risk for rip currents is moderate or high for all South Florida beaches, according to the National Weather Service. Rip currents increase the risk of drowning. As of Friday, the risk was high on Florida’s entire east coast and moderate in Broward and Miami-Dade counties..
Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@Sunsentinel.com.