Kids aren’t the only ones in the water this summer. Dangerous E. coli bacteria have also been populating public swimming areas, sickening dozens across the country since June.
Beginning on the 4th of that month, a series of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses began cropping up in Alabama’s Lee County. Four children were hospitalized, and as many as 15 were sickened. By the end of the month, the illnesses had been linked to the Opelika Sportsplex and Aquatics Center, which was temporarily shut down.
More recently, a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 cases has been traced back to a lake at Cowan’s Gap State Park in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced Tuesday that 11 Pennsylvania residents and two people from Maryland had developed E. coli O157:H7 infections after swimming at the park. Of these victims, eight have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication of the disease in which the kidney shuts down as a result of the poison released by the bacteria.
In Tennessee, five E. coli victims have reported exposure to local bodies of water, although their cases have not been definitively linked to these sources.
And several beaches around the country have been closed due to high levels of E. coli detected in the water.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bacterial contamination in recreational water is becoming an increasing problem. More and more beaches are closed each year for microbiological contamination.
However, these incidences are not the first, nor the worst, of past E. coli outbreaks sourced to recreational water.
In 1998, E. coli O157:H7 in the water at the Six Flags White Water Park in Atlanta sickened 26 people.
The following year, Washington state’s Battle Ground Lake was closed off after 37 people fell ill from E. coli poisoning. The lake remained off-limits for the next two years.
E. coli contamination arises from the presence of fecal matter in water. At pools and water parks, the source is usually human feces. E. coli in natural bodies of water can come from animals, such as livestock or wildlife, or humans, and is either shed directly into the water or washed into it by irrigation or rainwater, sewer systems or other water flows.
Studies have shown that the presence of E. coli in the environment increases during the summer. This is thought to be a result of increased shedding of the bacteria by animals, or from areas with higher average rainfall, as rainwater can wash fecal matter into surrounding water sources.
“E. coli bacteria is present in all surface water to some level,” said Teresa Frazier, a water-quality specialist at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, according to TriCities.com.
However, higher levels of E. coli – specifically shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STECs) – can pose a health threat to humans.
The EPA has set a threshold of 126 colonies per 100 ml for E. coli bacteria. Concentrations above this level have been shown to increase the likelihood of human infection.
Swimmers can take steps to protect themselves and to ensure the safety of others when visiting public water facilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection recommends the following precautions:
– Do not swallow swimming water
– Don’t swim when you have diarrhea in order to avoid spreading germs to others
– Shower and wash with soap before swimming in public areas, and wash hands after going to the bathroom before getting in the water
For parents of young children, the CDC recommends:
– Take kids on bathroom breaks or check diapers often.
– Change diapers in a changing area, not poolside
– Wash your children thoroughly (especially their rear end) with soap and water before swimming.
The EPA keeps a record of beaches that have been closed due to contamination, available on its website.
Symptoms of an E. coli infection include abdominal pain and sever cramping, followed by diarrhea within 24 hours. In serious cases, diarrhea can become watery or visibly bloody. Less common side effects include vomiting and fever, although fever is rare. The time between exposure and onset of symptoms can range anywhere from 1 to 10 days.