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Flowers & Power: Fast pollution test could keep beaches open more often

New Contributor III
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Ah, nothing like heading out to the beach in the summer. The warm sun on your skin, the hot sand between your toes, the waves crashing around you.

Unfortunately, the water isn’t always as pristine as it seems at first glance. Sewage overflow from nearby treatment plants can contaminate oceans and lakes. And some swimmers aren’t as clean or as courteous regarding their bodily functions as you’d like them to be. <Ahem.> But humans aren’t the only ones at fault. We also share beaches with wildlife, waterfowl and pets whose wastes can dirty our waters.

It’s a serious issue. Fecal material harbors bacteria, such as the dangerous E. coli bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, and even death in immune-compromised, elderly or very young people. That’s why state and local officials test the water at public beaches. They want to make sure that no one gets sick after going for a swim.

The problem is that current tests take too long. They involve taking water samples and putting them on culture dishes to see if bacteria grow. That can take a day or two. So, today’s result is really an indication of the water quality yesterday or even a couple of days ago. Thus, managers might close a beach based on fecal contamination that existed in the past, but that poses no current threat. Likewise, they might keep a contaminated beach open because the water was clean in the past.

Now, researchers report in Environmental Science & Technology that they’ve compared various methods and found that one particular water-quality test could be ideal. Developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the test’s fast results could help managers across the country make better decisions about their beaches. It could prevent unnecessary beach closures and unnecessary illnesses by providing accurate, same-day results of bacteria levels.

What do you think? Have you ever gotten sick after swimming in a lake or ocean? How would you build a water-quality test?

“Choices in Recreational Water Quality Monitoring: New Opportunities and Health Risk Trade-Offs”

*Journalists can request a PDF of the journal article by emailing


Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock 

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