If you’re thinking about heading to the beach for a swim, you may think you’re doing something healthy. But coastal swimming can make you sick, especially if the water is contaminated with sewage, bacteria or runoff from heavy rains or storms.
Before you take a dip, it makes sense to understand the risks — and when and where you’re likely to encounter them.
“Our ocean water quality is really excellent,” said J.D. Potts, program manager of the state’s Recreational Water Quality Program for the Department of Environmental Quality. “It takes a lot of rain from a tropical storm to impact our ocean beaches.”
That’s a view with some popular appeal. According to a June 2014 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Pier at Salisbury Street in Wrightsville was one of 35 “superstar” beaches nationwide, hailed for routinely meeting national water quality standards between 2009 and 2013.
Still, between 2012 and 2016, there were more than 40 swimming advisories and alerts in New Hanover County, including an alert at Ocean Pier at Salisbury Street in July 2014, according to an archive on the DEQ’s website.
When a swimming advisory is in effect, testing has shown that bacteria exceeds state and federal levels for swimming water quality, according to the DEQ’s website; state environmental health officials advise that swimmers should avoid the water within 200 feet of an advisory sign.
Though none of the state’s 24 swimming alerts and advisories in 2016 were in New Hanover county, 13 of 58 – or 22 percent of the total — were in the county in 2015, including Banks Channel, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach. In 2014, there were 14 swim advisories or alerts in New Hanover County — roughly 18 percent of the state’s total of 80. Affected locations included Banks Channel, Ocean Pier at K Avenue, Kure Beach and Ocean Pier at Salisbury Street.
The county had seven of the state’s 17 alerts and advisories in 2013, or roughly 42 percent, at sites such as Banks Channel, Wrightsville Beach and Ocean Pier at K Avenue. And in 2012, the county accounted for nine of the state’s 42 swimming advisories and alerts, or 21 percent of the total, in locations such as Banks Channel, public access at the Hanby Beach storm drain and the vehicle access site 600 yards north of Carolina Beach Pier at Dune Marker No. 6.
As for timing, most of the 43 advisories and alerts came during August and September. In 2012, there were three in May, one in April and three in October. July saw one each in 2014 and 2013.
When swimming season kicks off on April 1, Potts said, the Recreational Water Quality program will begin weekly water sampling statewide and at 15 locations in New Hanover County, including the northern end of Wrightsville Beach at public access No. 2 — off Lumina Drive, three sites at Banks Channel and the Ocean Pier at Salisbury Street. The weekly tests, which continue until Sept. 30, check for enterococci bacteria, which is found in warm-blooded animals, including humans, according to DEQ’s web site; enterococci bacteria don’t make people sick, but they track with other viruses and bacteria that cause water-borne illnesses.
After a heavy rain, water that doesn’t absorb into the ground becomes contaminated with items such as pet waste, animal waste, gas, fertilizers and chemicals from roads, parking lots and roofs, according to DEQ’s website. That potentially bacteria-laden stormwater runoff pours into pipes and in some cases into coastal waters. If it the bacteria levels are high enough, people swimming or playing in the water run an elevated risk of getting an infection or gastrointestinal illness, including diarrhea and vomiting. Also at risk are children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
“The stormwater runoff is the major issue,” Potts said.
So if you want to swim and stay well in 2017, here are some safety tips from the state:
- Don’t swim immediately after a heavy rain, because the water may be contaminated.
- Don’t swim or play in water near sewer pipes, discharge pipes or storm drain outlets.
- Don’t drink or swallow the water when you swim.
- Don’t swim when you have open wounds or sores.
- Take a shower with soap and water after swimming.
- If you get cut or scraped while swimming, wash the wound with water and soap. See a doctor if you get a rash or swelling around the wound, or if it looks infected.
For more information, call 252-726-6827.
To check for swimming advisories by date and location, go here.
“If someone gets sick, they can call our office,” Potts said. They should get medical treatment first, of course, and then make the call, he added. “We want to know.”