When a beach is contaminated, should you swim or call it a day?
Fresh water beach inspection intern Sarah Snow takes a water sample at Uncanoonuc Lake on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Then you see the red or yellow sign. It says the beach might be contaminated. You're advised to turn away from your day of fun and go somewhere else.
Most people do.
“I would rather go home and get wet in the tub,” said Melissa Sessions of Salisbury, Mass., who on Thursday was enjoying Kingston State Park, which was not under a contamination advisory.
But in New Hampshire, you don't necessarily have to leave, said Sonya C. Carlson, beach program coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Services.
“We never order beaches closed. We simply provide advisories,” she said of the DES. “There's no law against (swimming in contaminated water).”
You and your family can still play on the beach and swim in water that may contain elevated levels of bacteria caused by — there's no nice way to say it — “poop,” Carlson said.
The state performs more than 2,000 tests, at $20 each, of freshwater and coastal beaches throughout the season, Carlson said. Federal funding pays for about half the costs to test the state's 16 coastal beaches, she said. The state and towns pick up the rest of the tab. Towns pay for testing of freshwater beaches within town limits, she said.
While the DES never closes a beach, individual beach owners, be they state parks, condominium associations or towns, can order beaches closed, Carlson said. For example, the state Division of Parks and Recreation on Thursday closed the beach at Silver Lake State Park in Hollis because of a cyanobacteria bloom.
Jocelyn Ortiz of Dracut, Mass., was planning to take her kids swimming at Silver Lake State Park on Thursday, but she decided against it after learning that the beach was closed. She went to Kingston State Park instead.
“I have kids, and my son would swim in the water and get sick. No thanks,” Ortiz said.
The state tests for disease-causing organisms, such as E.Coli, as well as cyanobacteria, a blue-green scum that can cause vomiting or diarrhea.
The tests, which involve scooping up water in a bottle at about knee depth, filtering it, then a day later seeing “what's growing” in the solid matter left over, cost about $20 each, Carlson said.
Rain, and what it sends into lakes, rivers and the ocean, is the most frequent cause of a beach advisory being issued, she said.
“It's going to wash off everything from the land and bring it into the water,” she said. “Whether it's goose poop or beaver poop, it will wash into the water.”
Ahern State Park in Laconia, which has a high goose population, finds itself on the advisory list more than any other beach, she said.
“It's always on the list after it rains,” she said. “All the goose poop goes washing into the stream and ends up on the beach.”
Another, more avoidable, cause: Infants not wearing special swim diapers designed to keep leaks from ending up in water used for swimming, she said.
“Definitely make sure they're wearing a swim diaper,” Carlson said of infants. To guard against getting sick, people should also rinse themselves off after getting out of the water, never drink the water and avoid the water if you have an open wound, are already sick or after heavy rains, she said.
Most freshwater beaches are tested once a month, she said, but towns are not obligated to participate. For example, she said, Groton and Wentworth decided against testing for Spectacle Pond in 2007 and Lower Baker River in 2008, respectively.
Groton Selectman Kyle Andrews was surprised to learn that Spectacle Pond was not being tested by the state. He said he was elected in 2009 and didn't know why the town decided to stop testing the beach.
The coastal beaches are tested in different intervals. Eight of the beaches are tested twice a week. Six others are tested once each week, while the remaining two are tested biweekly.
The state issues advisories if cyanobacteria blooms — which are colorful, pretty gatherings of algae — are spotted or if levels of such organisms as E.coli are above acceptable guidelines. It involves a lot of parts-per-million terminology that essentially says there's too much to consider the water safe for swimming.
As of Thursday, two beaches — Silver Lake State Park and Glen Lake Park Town Beach in Goffstown, which had elevated levels of bacteria — were under advisory.
Hudson mom Mindy Malek said she's at the Robinson Pond beach “just about every day” in the summer, and none of her children have ever gotten sick from their swims. Still, she said, she'd turn around if she were to see a sign warning of contamination.
Karen Parshley of New Hampton, who was visiting the Meredith Town Beach on Lake Waukewan, said she would not go into the lake if it were posted as having contamination.
“No,” she said. “I'd be afraid of the germs.”
However, the state has never received a report that anyone has gotten sick by swimming in any New Hampshire body of water, Carlson said.
“It would be very, very hard” to pinpoint an illness to a contaminated beach, she said. “There's really no way to be absolutely sure that somebody didn't get sick from something in the water.”
However, she said she believes the tests are worth the cost.
“When you're talking about something like public health at a public beach, why take the chance?” Carlson said. “It's not like it's an expensive test. Twenty dollars a test is not outrageous.”
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Tim Buckland may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Union Leader correspondents Jason Schreiber, April Guilmet and Dan Seufert contributed to this report.
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