A perfect August question arrived via email earlier this week:
Dear Organic Mom,
How can I tell if the water I swim in at the beach or the random swimming hole we found this past weekend when hiking is safe to swim in? Especially with kids.
Good question. We're also swimming so much these hot days, it's something I think about often. My general rule of thumb is to use common sense, to enjoy the water, and to always rinse off post dunk with soap and water. Be especially careful if you have cuts. Clean your swimwear and towels. If you don't feel well after a day at the beach, don't automatically chalk it up to eating too many fried clams plus ice cream. It could be the water and might be worth a call to your doctor.
The NRDC publishes extensive information on beach pollution on its Website. This includes ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches. The organization puts out annual Testing the Waters reports, which are worth a peek pre-vacation or hike. Unfortunately no report can cover every tempting body of water. If you know you're going to be hiking in a specific area and might want to swim, and are concerned about water safety, get in touch with the parks department or municipality in charge of governing that area and ask them about the pollution. I made one of these calls recently about an area of the upper Hudson River where I've been kayaking and fishing recently. I found out there is a sewage plant situation near where I was tempted to swim -- very glad I made the call.
If it has been raining heavily, beach water is more likely to be polluted. The NRDC explains: "Heavy rain can overwhelm sewage systems, forcing raw sewage directly into coastal waters, bypassing treatment plants. And as rainwater washes over land, it picks up pollutants and carries them directly to coastal waters. Pollutants found in stormwater include trash, motor oil, pet waste, pesticides, fertilizer, animal droppings, and anything else that washes off developed land when it rains."
So if it has recently been raining you might want to hold off, especially if your swimming crew includes people with growing or weakened immune systems (kids, pregnant women, elderly or sick people) who are most likely to get sick from swimming in contaminated water.
The EPA also publishes information about beach safety. They waste no time explaining that "there is not enough information available now to define the extent of beach pollution throughout the country. A few states have comprehensive beach monitoring programs to test the safety of water for swimming. Many other states have only limited beach monitoring programs, and some states have no monitoring programs linked directly to water safety at swimming beaches." Which is precisely why showering off post swim makes sense. The EPA also offers up the following handy list to ask your local lifeguard:
All of the above doesn't mean chlorinated pools are the only safe places to swim; chlorine has its own issues. Wherever you are swimming, before you slather on sunscreen and dive in, check out the latest just released report from Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union and the International Center for Technology Assessment on nanomaterials in sunscreen containing natural blocks like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
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