What’s Lurking in Your Beach's Water?

July 14, 2016 -- Brian Parrott can’t watch news reports about what happened to him. He can still barely believe it.

Parrott, a 50-year-old security guard, went to a Galveston, TX, beach with his son and grandchildren on a recent Sunday afternoon. He went to work as usual on Monday, but by Tuesday, he was running a fever and his right leg had turned red. On Wednesday, his leg was covered in oozing blisters. On Thursday, when he finally went to the emergency room, doctors told him he could lose his leg or his life.

Parrott was infected with a rare but aggressive bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus. About 120 people get it in the U.S. every year, according to the CDC. If the infection travels to the bloodstream, it’s fatal in about half of those cases, according to the FDA. People get infected by vibrio in a couple of different ways -- by coming into contact with warm salt or brackish water or by eating contaminated seafood, like oysters.

Parrott still doesn’t know exactly how he got so unlucky. He didn’t have any obvious cuts or open wounds, which would have given the bacteria an easy way in. Dailey says Parrott and his doctors are certain he got it after swimming at the beach.

“All he was doing was being a grandpa with his grandkids. There were no signs [warning about the danger],” says his mother, Donna Dailey, who lives in Houston.

Parrott and other victims often feel blindsided that they could have gotten so sick. After all, it’s the beach -- a place that practically epitomizes what it means to be relaxed and carefree. But many beaches aren’t pristine, and there’s sometimes little to alert visitors to the dangers.

And vibrio may not be the only thing lurking in beach water. This year, toxic algae and high levels of bacteria from fecal matter have been reported at beaches on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

“There are still quite significant problems across the U.S. and these are often associated with rainfall,” says Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney and water program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which keeps tabs on recreational water quality across the U.S.

In late June, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties after several popular swim spots on the state’s southeast coast were fouled by a thick, stinking slime of blue-green algae that had drifted to the coast after growing in rivers fed by discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

For the time being, the beaches in Martin County -- one of the hardest hit areas -- are open and clear of algae, but there’s still algae in the St. Lucie River and it’s making its way to the ocean, according to Martin County officials.

Chris Voelker, an employee at the Ohana Surf Shop in Stuart, FL, says he has seen another batch of it coming. He expects it to hit the beaches again sometime next week.

He says the Treasure Coast has been dealing with algae blooms off and on for the past 30 years. But this year is different. “It’s never been this bad,” he says.

Blue-green algae produce the toxin microcystin, which can cause a rash or blisters if it touches the skin. If swallowed, it can cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhea, and fever. It can irritate the throat and lungs if inhaled.

Several beaches along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast have posted water contact advisories after logging high counts of enterococci, a kind of bacteria found in feces.

And some South Carolina beaches, including Myrtle Beach, a popular tourist destination, are under long-term swim advisories because of an increased possibility of high bacteria levels due to storm water runoff. Swimmers in those locations are cautioned to avoid swimming within 400 feet of a storm water drain.

A federal law called the BEACH act, which makes about $10 million available every year to help local governments monitor water quality at their shores, has really helped in terms of alerting beachgoers to potential problems, Fleischli says Areas that get the funding are required to notify the public when certain kinds of bacteria are high.

But rain causes trouble in a couple of ways. In many cities, sewer drains and storm runoff pipes are connected. Heavy rains can cause waste water systems to overflow and carry raw sewage into the ocean. Rain also washes other kinds of contaminants like oil, trash, pesticides, and fertilizers off surface streets and into the water, which can pose risks for human or animal health.

It can be tricky to know when trouble is lurking in the water. Not every beach tests its water, and even in areas that do, the frequency can vary. Some sample the water daily, while others check weekly.

When problems are identified, notification can lag by a day or two. Some local public health departments warn of water quality problems via a website. In other cases, warning signs or flags are used to alert swimmers.

People who want to stay healthy when heading to the beach can take some concrete steps to protect themselves, Fleischli says.

  • Know before you go:

State and local health departments often maintain websites that alert beachgoers to water quality problems.Another great place to check is the Swim Guide, which is maintained by the nonprofit Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an environmental watchdog group in Canada. Even if there isn’t a current advisory at the beach you want to visit, it’s smart to avoid those that have had repeated problems with water quality in the past, Fleischli says.

  • While at the beach, keep an eye out for signs warning swimmers about water quality problems.

  • Even if you don’t see a sign or flag, stay out of the water after a heavy rain. “At least wait one day, definitely in urban areas,” Fleischli says. A waiting period of 2-3 days is even better.

  • Don’t swim near pipes, ditches, culverts, or creeks that empty into the ocean.

  • Beware of inland lagoons. Sometimes called mothers’ beaches or babies’ beaches, these swim spots are often billed as being great for families since they don’t have strong waves or currents, but the still water also makes for iffy swimming. “Don’t swim anywhere that’s smelly, stinky, or slimy. When in doubt, stay out,” Fleischli says.

  • Don’t give bacteria a way to get in. Don’t swim with open sores or cuts, and try not to get water in your eyes, nose, or mouth. That means trying not to dunk your head. If you’re fishing, immediately and thoroughly wash any skin that gets punctured or scratched with antiseptic soap. Keep cut hands and fingers out of the bait bucket.

  • Any signs of infection after a trip to the beach should be checked by a doctor. These include fever, vomiting or diarrhea, and abdominal pain. People with skin infections may notice redness or blisters. These symptoms may be worse in people who have weakened immune function because of underlying medical conditions like diabetes, liver disease, or kidney disease.

Doctors think diabetes may have played a role in Parrott’s infection.

So far, surgeons have removed his right foot and part of his leg below the knee. He’ll soon go back into the hospital for a fourth surgery to remove even more bone and tissue.

Parrott can’t work. He had just started a new job and didn’t yet have health insurance when he got sick. His family has set up an online fund to defray medical expenses. And they’re working to get the word out about vibrio infections at the beach.

“We don’t want any other families to have to go through this,” Dailey says. “It’s life changing.”


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