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Park district changes how it looks at possible illness risks to swimmers

At Foster Beach Chicago many people came out enjoy cool lake waters 90 degree heat.  The Chicago Park District

At Foster Beach in Chicago, many people came out to enjoy the cool lake waters in the 90 degree heat. The Chicago Park District has a new method on reporting contaminated waters on the lakefront. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli is a type of bacteria that often lives in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. But one powerful strain of the bacterium produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness.

Many people infected with it develop severe diarrhea and painful abdominal cramps, although some people show few or no symptoms. The illness usually resolves in five to 10 days.

In some more severe cases, particularly children younger than 5 and the elderly, the infection can lead to destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anemia) and acute kidney failure (also known as uremia).

SOURCE: Illinois Department of Public Health

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Updated: August 5, 2012 6:33AM

The Chicago Park District this summer has yet to ban swimming at any of its beaches because of high levels of bacteria in the water.

That’s notable because swimming was banned 36 times last year. And because the Fourth of July marks arguably the busiest day at the beaches every summer.

With those beaches set to get even busier thanks to the ongoing oppressive heat in the city, does that mean swimmers can assume the water is simply cleaner than it used to be?

Not really.

What happened? In the last year, the park district changed the way it looks at the possible risks of illness to swimmers from that nasty stomach bug, E. coli.

Instead of banning swimming when E. coli levels appear escalated in daily tests, the park district is using new methods to determine the risks to swimmers and then simply issuing advisories to warn them.

After that it’s up to you whether you want to dip your feet into Lake Michigan at any of Chicago’s 25 beaches.

Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks, a nonprofit park watchdog group, said she has no problem with the new tactic.

“We know Lake Michigan is not the cleanest,” she said. “It’s much better than it was 10 years ago, but I think it’s fair enough that [the park district] is being clear in posting everything — even those visible flags — to get the information out there.”

White boards at beaches will be updated to show bacteria counts and results from the previous day. When those levels are elevated, a yellow flag will be posted in the sand to warn of a swim advisory.

And on the website, beachgoers can check for advisories before a trip to the lake.

On Tuesday, the only beach under advisory was the 57th Street Beach, though early in the afternoon a green flag was still flying at the beach — a sign that all was clear.

Abby Hymen, director of the summer program at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, was part of a group of about 65 kids and 10 staffers enjoying one of their regular outings to the beach. She was shocked to hear of the E. coli advisory.

“I thought they let people know. There’s usually a sign they put up,” she said.

Later, after lifeguards were told of the discrepancy, the green flag was replaced with a yellow one.

Lifeguard captain Nick Ramirez, 25, said swimmers were not at risk.

“It’s not dangerous. Either way, the people can still swim,” he said.

Changes in attitude

Last year, the park district banned swimming when tests detected 1,000 colony-forming units of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water.

Spokeswoman Zvezdana Kubat said that practice was “self-imposed” and not required by the EPA. Instead, now the city now issues swim advisories when 235 or more colony-forming units of the bacteria have been detected.

“This year we’re issuing swim advisories so we allow people to make their own decisions,” Kubat said.

A spokesman for the state health department said that philosophy passes muster because it abides by EPA guidelines.

You won’t see bans unless the Chicago area experiences severe weather or if lightning strikes, the park district said.

The only time water quality should lead to a ban is when heavy storms force the city to open its locks and allow sewage to flow into the lake in an attempt to avoid flooding.

“When sewage gets dumped into the lake, we impose a mandatory swim ban at all beaches. Same thing with severe weather,” Kubat said. “If we see lightning like we did in Sunday’s storm that came so fast, they have to get the people out of the water. But a ban from E. coli based on water quality? No.”

The increased E. coli levels that in the past have forced swimmers to stay on the sand is from birds, not sewage, Kubat said.

“When you’re seeing any kind of rise in E. coli [in Chicago], it’s from the gull population, not from any sort of human waste.”

That has been an issue at the 63rd and 57th Street beaches. But the park district has brought in border collies to chase away the gulls from dusk until dawn at those beaches.

New ways of measuring risk

Along with the changes in how the park district views elevated levels of E. coli, it has taken a new approach to judging how much of the bacteria is in the water.

Under the old system, water samples were taken daily at each beach and taken to a lab to monitor the growth of bacteria in them. But sometimes it could take as long as 16 hours to get results. That meant by the time a swimming ban would be issued, the bacteria levels could have returned to normal.

The park district now uses new technology that looks at numerous variables such as wind speeds and air and water temperatures and places them in an equation that helps measure the risk — in real time.

“In looking at that, we noticed we can do away with bans. It’s actually safe to swim in the water,” Kubat said.

At the 57th Street Beach, the advisory was not dissuading the small crowd who came out in Tuesday’s sweltering heat.

Several people said they didn’t check for a water-quality advisory before heading to the beach. They had other priorities.

“It’s hot, I’m trying to stay cool,” said South Sider Carrie England, 37.

Contributing: Josh McGhee, Matt McKinney, Sun-Times Media

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