Swimmable Waters?

Mile 4 of the 12 mile Swim Around Charleston

I might reconsider my goal of swimming an open water marathon by the time I turn thirty-five, or perhaps I’ll just swim it in the pool instead.  Last year when I swam twelve miles around the Charleston, South Carolina peninsula, I chose to be blissfully ignorant of what was in the liquid realm surrounding me.

My denial ended when I listened to the EPA’s webinar last week and learned that fecal contamination is the contaminant of concern for the new Recreational Water Quality Criteria (RWQC).  Scientific studies show a link between illness and fecal contamination in recreational waters. The new criteria are designed to protect primary contact activities such as swimming, where incidental water ingestion is likely.  The last time the EPA issued ambient water quality criteria recommendations for recreational waters was over twenty years ago!

E. coli: An indicator for fecal contamination.

It is comforting then, that the new RWQC are based on the latest science and address additional illness symptoms than those addressed by the 1986 criteria.  The 2012 RWQC use two bacterial indicators of fecal contamination: E. coli and enterococci.  According to the webinar discussion, while some states still use fecal coliform as an indicator, E. coli and enterococci prove better indicators of fecal contamination.

The strengthened recommendations include a new rapid testing method that states can use to determine if water quality is safe within hours of water samples being taken and an early alert approach for states to use to quickly issue swim advisories.  Though there is limited experience implementing Method 1611, the EPA strongly encourages states to do so because currently accepted culture methods require one to two days to obtain results, whereas Method 1611 requires only three to four hours.

Swimmer Beware!

But the new recommendations are just that: recommendations.  States and tribes may adopt other water quality criteria that differ from the EPA’s so long as the criteria are scientifically defensible.  So to a swimmer like me, these improvements do not alleviate fears of swimming in fecal contamination because the improved criteria are not required.   Moreover, the rapid testing results may be lauded as an improvement, but as a swimmer, I would hope that rapid results are the norm.

Waiting for the results to come in.

I consider numerous environmental factors when preparing to submerge, including air temperature, water temperature, wind strength, current strength, and the timing of tides.  I even consider wildlife feeding habits, dare I interfere with an animal and its food, or be mistaken for food. My feet touch the sand, and within minutes of considering these factors, I take to the deep blue abyss.  Due to the EPA’s very informative webinar, I am now prepared to hang out on the beach until the results come in.  Or is chlorine the way to go?

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