The Coastal Resource Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources routinely sends out health advisories when coastal waters are found to be contaminated.
According beach-water-quality specialist Elizabeth Cheney, the DNR tests the beach water on Tybee Island, St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island once a week.
“The bacteria we test for is enterococcus,” Cheney said. “The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends testing for enterococcus in beach water. (This) is a bacteria found in the intestinal tract of all warm-blooded animals, including humans but also birds, dogs, raccoons, deer, dolphins and other wildlife.”
Cheney said it’s difficult to determine the exact source of enterococcus found in beach water when test results show that levels exceed limits established by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. She said some possible sources for contamination could be animal waste, sewage overflow or malfunctioning septic tank systems, storm water runoff or boating waste.
She said in recent months, the Coastal Resources Division has issued health advisories regarding beach water safety due to high levels of enterococci bacteria. The advisories note the exact locations of waters used by swimmers and fishermen. For example, an Aug. 27 advisory noted a risk for enterococcus bacteria on St. Simons Island from the 5th Street Crossover Beach to 9th Street. The advisory is only for the area noted in the advisory and doesn’t affect other beaches, she said.
In none of the advisories were the beaches closed, she said. Swimmers and fishermen simply were advised of the risks and warned to wash off thoroughly with fresh water when they leave the beach. Fishermen were advised to wash the fish they caught and their hands thoroughly with fresh water and cook their fish thoroughly before eating.
A fact sheet provided by Cheney said Chatham and Glenn counties health departments recommend not swimming or wading in waters that are under an advisory. Enterococcus contamination appears to be higher after it rains, the fact sheet notes.
Health risks from exposure to enterococcus bacteria include gastrointestinal illnesses, wound infections, respiratory infections, sore throats, ear aches and urinary-tract infections, according to Todd A. Driver, Coastal Health District environmental-health director for the Georgia Department of Public Health. People with weakened immune systems, children and the elderly have a greater chance of getting sick or infected, he said.
Driver concurred with Cheney about the advisories while adding a few details. He said beaches are divided into zones. Water samples are taken from the center of each zone, and if bacteria levels are high in a certain zone, an advisory is issued for that particular area. Within a few days, another sample is taken and retested, he said. When bacteria in the water decreases to an acceptable level, the advisory is lifted. Driver said no connection has been found between enterococcus bacteria and the flesh-eating disease, necrotizing fasciitis.
“The public should know that we do test the beach water,” Cheney said. “If elevated levels of bacteria are found, the (Coastal) Health District will issue an advisory. “You can find out whether a beach is under an advisory by checking www.GaHealthyBeaches.org or looking for signs posted at the access points on the beach.”