Woodstock in 1969 on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm near White Lake in Bethel, NY, with 400,000 in attendance for three days of Peace Music was the birth of large music festivals. It came off with two deaths, two births and hundreds of drug overdoses with about 30 requiring serious medical treatment.  

Times have changed and music festivals today are not usually held on isolated dairy farms, but in big cities. One such example is the Austin City Limits Music Festival with 125 acts and staged during the past two weekends at Zilker Park, just across the Colorado River from downtown Austin.

The ACL Music Festival did see a man punch out two women who were strangers to him but did not report any births or deaths. Officials kept quiet about any overdoses. But the national lawn caretaker Lawn Starter, which hired EMLab P&K LLC, to check out Zilker Park during the first weekend of the ACL Music Festival.  It found E. coli and fecal coliforms with some that cause illnesses among those who attended the event.

The findings, which Lawn Starter said represented both harmful and harmless bacterial growth, point to how public areas of many American cities have turned into public health nuisances.   Lawn Starter shared the lab findings, saying festival-goers need to be aware of what they are being exposed to.

Total coliforms, which were found on almost every swabbed surface at the festival site, are bacteria that live in human and animal intestines. 

“While they are relatively harmless, they carry a specific subgroup called Fecal Coliform that can indicate the presence of other bacteria found in fecal matter,” Lawn Starter reported.

“The leading member of this subgroup is called Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli). While most strains of E. coli are harmless, some can make you extremely ill with symptoms of diarrhea, UTIs, respiratory illnesses, pneumonia, etc.

“It’s essential to be aware of the dangers of E. coli, and unfortunately, it’s much more common than you think.”

Before the second weekend, Lawn Starter’s explains that E. coli aren’t just found in intestines, but often in the environment and food as well. 

It contends that festivals such as Austin City Limits aren’t immune to E. coli contamination, and it’s an important thing to keep in mind. 

The ACL Music Festival, an annual event since 2002, draws 450,000 attendees. 

This year, Lawn Starter hired the lab to swab some of the most common areas of the festival grounds to test for bacteria levels such as E. coli, fecal coliform, and total coliform.

Portapotties were the most contaminated areas at the festival with E. coli present, meaning that fecal coliforms and total coliforms were present as well. 

Most areas swabbed had some bacteria present. Picnic tables, phone charging stations, and the front rail of the main stage were swabbed and tested positive for fecal coliforms and total coliforms. 

The cleanest part of the festival happened to be the electric scooters out front. They only came up positive for total coliforms

After uncovering the findings,  Lawn Starter asked Dr. Amesh Adalja at the Johns Hopkins Center Health Security, why festivals are as dirty as they are and what can be done about it. The infectious disease physician said: “Festivals bring together people from varied geographic locations where they may have close contact with one another — this can facilitate disease transmission…”

“Basic hygiene, including handwashing, is the only real way for an individual to minimize risk. Festival organizers can have hand washing stations, ample bathroom facilities, and well-maintained food stations as well.” 

But festival-goers need to remember that everything they touch might very well be covered in fecal matter.   Using hand sanitizers and practicing good hygiene is the only defense.

E. coli, Fecal Bacteria at Austin City Limits Festival
Test site E coli found? Fecal contamination found?
Portapotty 1 Yes Yes
Portapotty 2 Yes Yes
Scooter 1 No No
Scooter 2 No No
Stage front rail 1 No No
Stage front rail 2 No Yes
Picnic table 1 No Yes
Picnic table 2 No Yes
Cellphone charger 1 No Yes
Cellphone charger 2 No Yes
Source: LawnStarter.com collected bacterial swab tests from 10 locations at the Austin City Limits music festival during weekend 1, Oct. 4-6 2019.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)