What is E. coli?
Escherichia coli (E. coli) is one type of bacteria that is commonly found in the intestinal tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals; it is therefore used as an indicator of fecal contamination of water. Most strains of E. coli are harmless; however, its presence may indicate that pathogens (disease-causing organisms) also are present in the water.
What are pathogens, and why is E. coli used to indicate their
presence in water?
The E. coli bacterium, which is present in the feces of warm-blooded animals, is commonly associated with and is an indicator of several different disease-causing organisms, called pathogens.
- • Viral pathogens are believed to be the major cause of
swimming-associated diseases (Natural Resources Defense Council, 1998).
There are more than 100 types of human pathogenic viruses that may be
present in fecal-contaminated waters.
- • Bacteria are true living cells and are larger than viruses. Waterborne
bacterial pathogens in the United States include species in the genera
Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, Campylobacter, and
rare strains of
- • Protozoa are one-celled animals. The principal protozoan pathogens that are waterborne are Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium parvum.
Because of its association with pathogens and because it is comparatively easy to grow in the laboratory, E. coli is the basis for Ohio recreational water-quality standards. There are several varieties of pathogenic E. coli and hundreds of varieties of harmless E. coli. One variety of E. coli that is pathogenic has been associated with undercooked ground beef.
How are E. coli levels measured?
Daily water samples are collected from the beach each morning in sterile bottles. The samples are brought to the laboratory where they are processed for E. coli within 6 hours of collection. The method used to determine levels of E. coli is called membrane filtration. During membrane filtration, a measured amount of water is poured through a filter to trap bacteria onto the filter. The filter is placed on an agar plate and allowed to incubate at a warm temperature overnight. Colonies are counted the next day and recorded as colonies per 100 milliliters. A milliliter is a very small quantity of water—about 0.03 fluid ounces or one-fifth of a teaspoon.
What is a water quality advisory?
A Water Quality Advisory is a public notification, typically in the form of a sign posted at the beach, to advise the public that current water quality standards are not acceptable for swimming due to elevated bacteria levels. A Water Quality Advisory remains in effect until another measurement is made that shows that E. coli levels are within acceptable limits.
How do beach managers determine when to issue a water quality advisory?
There are state standards for E. coli in recreational waters. The state standards are based on those recommended by USEPA and determined by earlier USEPA studies. In USEPA studies, investigators determined that when E. coli levels went up, the number of swimming-associated gastrointestinal illnesses also increased. The Ohio bathing-water standard for E. coli is a single-sample value of 235 colonies per 100 milliliters. If the count for E. coli is equal to or above 235, the beach manager will issue a water-quality advisory.
What are the problems with the current method used for issuing beach advisories (based on the previous day’s
E. coli level)?
Current methods to assess concentrations of E. coli using membrane filtration or other cultural methods take at least 18 hours to complete. During this period, E. coli levels may increase or decrease substantially. A heavy rainfall may cause an increase in E. coli levels overnight. Alternatively, a bright sunny day may cause E. coli levels to fall. So, the beach may be erroneously posted based on measured E. coli levels from the previous day.
What is being done to improve the accuracy of the beach advisory system?
Scientists are developing and testing tools that can provide beach managers with quick, reliable indicators of recreational water-quality conditions. Predictive models are one means to provide these rapid assessments. Predictive models use easily and quickly measured water-quality surrogates, such as rainfall and wave height, to estimate levels of E. coli or the probability that the bathing-water standard will be exceeded.
Is the water safe for swimming?
The beach water may appear to be clear and clean, but it doesn’t mean it is safe for swimming. Bacteria cannot be seen in the water; it is therefore important to remember the following guidelines:
- • Bacteria levels are typically elevated for 24 to 48 hours after heavy rains as the result of surface runoff.
- • Bacteria levels may also be elevated when wind velocities and waves are high. These conditions can stir up the bottom sediment in the lake and cause the water to appear turbid, or dirty.
- • Water-quality signs are posted at the beaches. Look for the signs and read the signs to determine whether or not the water is safe. Water quality advisories are issued when water-quality standards are not within safe limits. Swimming in the water under these conditions may result in illness.
What illnesses may result from swimming in the water?
There is a potential for illness to occur when bacteria levels are unsafe. Gastrointestinal upset, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea may occur as a result of swallowing contaminated water. There is also a potential for developing upper respiratory infections, in addition to ear and eye infections. Skin infections may also occur if an exposed wound is in contact with contaminated water.
Who is most at risk for becoming ill?
Children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems are most at risk for developing illnesses from swimming when bacteria levels are unsafe.
What should I do if I became ill after swimming at the beach?
If you should become ill, or suspect you became ill, after swimming at the beach, you should notify your doctor and your local health department. Your local health department is interested in tracking illnesses that may have resulted from water-contact activities and will conduct follow-up investigations where necessary.
Where does beach pollution come from?
Pollution in beach water can be attributed to several factors, the most common of which are sanitary and storm-sewer overflows. In older, urban areas, sanitary and storm-sewer systems were often combined and designed to overflow during heavy rains to prevent basement flooding. It is therefore important not to swim near storm drains or other discharge pipes.
Other sources of pollution include sewage-treatment-plant overflows, runoff from lawns and streets, animal wastes (especially waterfowl wastes), malfunctioning home and commercial sewage systems, and boating wastes.
How can I help to keep the beach clean?
Everyone has a role in keeping the beaches clean, safe, and enjoyable places to visit. The following practices will help to maintain one of our greatest natural resources—Lake Erie.
- • Follow good personal hygiene practices, such as using public restrooms and properly disposing of diapers. Also, don’t swim if you have diarrhea.
- • Properly dispose of pet wastes and garbage.
- • If you are a boater, comply with rules pertaining to the proper pumping of sewage holding tanks.
- • Maintain home sewage systems in good working order to prevent the discharge of improperly treated sewage.
- • Minimize the use of lawn chemicals, pesticides, and other toxic household products.
- • Conserve water.
- • Report any evidence of beach pollution to your local health department.
Is there a “pathogen problem” at Ohio beaches? Are people getting sick?
There is no true measure of the magnitude of disease associated with recreational water exposures (USEPA, 1999), in Ohio or elsewhere. That is because when people get sick after a weekend at the beach, the cause of illness is unknown. In addition, the illness is not reported unless there was an outbreak among a specific population, like a group of athletes participating in a triathlon.
Swimming in polluted water can make you sick (Natural Resources Defense Council, 1998). Epidemiological studies in the United States have consistently found an association between gastrointestinal illness and exposure to contaminated recreational waters; the potential for other types of infections is not completely understood (USEPA, 1999).
How would use of the nowcasting system and predictive models differ from the current way of assessing swimming safety?
Current methods to assess recreational water quality rely on collecting a sample of water from the beach area, transporting it to a laboratory, and determining numbers of indicator organisms, such as E. coli. It takes as least 18 hours to grow E. coli in the laboratory. Therefore, by the time E. coli results are compiled, beach water-quality conditions may have already changed. By contrast, it takes less than an hour to estimate recreational water quality using the predictive model and transmit results through the nowcasting system.
How well do the predictive models work?
The nowcast has been operating at Huntington since 2006, at Edgewater since 2008, at Maumee Bay State Park since 2011, and at Villa Angela since 2012. Performances of the models in the nowcast were monitored for those years. If one were to examine the data in hindsight and assume the culture results for E. coli were the correct results, we can compare the performance of predictive models to that of using the previous day’s E. coli concentration to predict the current day’s E. coli concentration, the later being the old method used by many beach managers. Overall, the nowcast has provided more correct responses than the previous day’s E. coli concentration at our four nowcast beaches.
Why was the USGS involved in this research?
Water quality and quantity are critical topics in which the USGS has developed expertise over many years. The relatively recent addition of biological science to the agency’s core program creates opportunities to apply science in a variety of new ways.
The USGS did not do this research alone. Agencies that cooperated with us on data collection and model development or provided funding were the Ohio Water Development Authority, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, Cuyahoga County Board of Health, the Ohio Lake Erie Office, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the University of Toledo, Erie County Health Department, Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, and Lake County General Health District.
Are models being developed for other beaches?
Yes, models are being developed by research institutions and public agencies for other coastal and inland beaches in the United States.
As part of a Great Lakes Beach Health initiative, a USGS Midwest area team worked with local agencies to develop and implement the use of predictive models at 49 beaches across the Great Lakes. Specifically, at Ohio Great Lakes beaches, this work led to initiating nowcasts during 2014 at Mentor Headlands State Park (Mentor), Fairport Harbor (Painesville), Vermillion Main Street Beach (Vermillion), and Nickel Plate Beach (Huron).
As part of another project and report of inland lakes, the USGS Ohio Water Science Center worked with local agencies to develop and implement the use of predictive models at six inland recreational lakes in Ohio.
Is anyone else doing the same kind of research? Are other predictive models being used at beaches?
Yes, the USGS and other researchers are working on developing and testing predictive models at coastal beaches. Operational models (those used daily to issue swim advisories or closings) that rely on several explanatory variables (rainfall, wave height, wind direction, etc.) are being used in other communities in the United States, mainly in the Great Lakes. These include beaches in Wisconsin and in Chicago, Illinois. The USGS Georgia Water Science Center has initiated a bacteria alert program for a recreational river that provides the same type of output as the Lake Erie models—the probability that the standard will be exceeded (Lawrence, 2005).
Is it acceptable to use a model to assess recreational water quality?
USEPA states that a monitoring program is essential to any beach-management program and recommends that the current E. coli laboratory method be used for assessing ambient waters and for making decisions concerning the protection of human health (USEPA 2002, p. 4-17). However, USEPA also states that modeling tools may be used to supplement, not replace, monitoring. Modeling tools can provide conservative estimates when there is a lag time between sampling the water quality and obtaining results. If models are properly developed and applied, they can be used in making beach advisory or closing decisions (USEPA 2002, p. 4-22).
Centers for Disease Control, 2003, Infectious disease information: Atlanta, GA, accessed April 2010 at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/index.htm.
Lawrence, S., 2005, Chattahoochee Riverway Project—BacteriALERT Project: Atlanta, GA, accessed April 2010 at http://ga2.er.usgs.gov/bacteria/
Natural Resources Defense Council, 1998, Testing the Waters VIII: New York, 145 p.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2002, National beach guidance and required performance criteria for grants: Washington, D.C., EPA-823-B-02-004.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1999, EPA action plan for beaches and recreational waters: Washington, D.C., Office of Water, EPA-600-R-98-079.