Beach Warnings: Are E-Coli Levels As Dire As They Sound?

By KBJR News 1

July 23, 2013 Updated Jul 23, 2013 at 10:33 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) --- Lake Superior has some of the most pristine beaches on the Great Lakes, but they're not without their problems.

For the past 12 years beach monitoring has shown fluctuating levels of e-coli on many beaches in the Northland.

Levels of e-coli, over federal health standards, result in no water contact advisories from the state health department.

But some question whether those warnings are as dire as they sound.

We don't get as many beach days as many would like along the northern shores of Lake Superior. So when we get a nice day we want to be able to go for a dip. But a sign advising “no water contact” can put a real damper on a day at the beach.

"It's actually very worrisome,” Morgan Graphenteen, a beach-goer said.

"We're taking a little bit of a gamble,” Erik Larson, a Duluth resident said. “We're going to swim anyway."

But how much of a gamble is it exactly?

The most popular beaches in Duluth and along the North Shore are regularly monitored by the Minnesota Health Department through a Federal Clean Water Fund Grant.

“We're testing for e-coli in the water and I'm going to take the wind speed and the air temperature and then the water temperature and grab a water sample,” Cindy Hakala of the MN Department of Beach Monitoring Program said.

The samples are then taken to the ERA labs in Duluth to test for e-coli.

“From this we actually do a count of the wells that fluoresce for e-coli,” Laura Lubahn, ERA Lab Quality Control Advisor said. “There's actually a table that you actually go off to get the calculation of what the most probable number is.”

If the e-coli count is over the acceptable state and federal standards the beach is posted with a sign advising swimmers to avoid water contact.

“We go in knee deep because toddlers are one of our more vulnerable populations and we figure knee deep is about as far as a small child would go in the water,” Hakala said.

Scientists say the e-coli comes from a variety of sources including humans, animals, water fowl, and even naturally occurring in the sand, and in the slime, on shoreline rocks.

But the fact is most of the e-coli is harmless.

“Less than one percent harbor any kind of pathogenic genes,” Dr. Randall Hicks a researcher at UMD said. “The indicator organisms, e-coli, aren't really the pathogens we're looking for.”

The danger they're looking for is fecal contamination.

While the ducks and geese do drop a lot of waste into the water scientists say most doesn't contain dangerous levels of bacteria.

“They do harbor some disease but it's probably of less concern than human pathogens,” Dr. Hicks said.

The problem is it's tough to determine which of the e-coli came from people and which came from the other sources.

That's something Dr. Hicks and his team are working on.

“What we did was create a DNA fingerprint from these different sources,” he said.

Right now beach monitors post a no water contact based simply on the level of e-coli but at some point the testing could be much more specific to the actual health danger.

While all the e-coli found in the water might not be dangerous, Dr. Hicks says it's better to err on the side of caution.

“So would I go into a beach that had a posting? Probably not, because there is a chance, although somewhat small, that you might contract some dermatitis, or you might get gastroenteritis if you drank some of the water,” he said.

Dr. Hicks says until the testing can be more specific to the type of e-coli and the real level of health danger, the beach monitoring program is the best things we've got going.

To find out the status of Northland beaches you can call the beach monitoring program hotline at 218-725-7724.

Visit the Lake Superior Beach Monitoring Program online.

Barbara Reyelts