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The World Health Organization, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and virtually every major western country including the USA and Canada, and many South American, African, and Eastern European countries have established what they consider to be acceptable safety and health standards for recreational water use. Beaches and fresh water bodies are closed and made off-limits every day because water tests indicate the water is unsafe for swimming. If the “fecal coliform” counts are high the risk of contracting various water-borne diseases is also high and governments warn citizens away from that water until it is again safe to swim. So why don’t we test the water at the “ole swimming hole”, or the farm pond our children or grandchildren use, or other private water sources we use for recreational purposes? We believe it is because most folks just don’t know that their family’s health may be at risk if they don’t. But in this case, what you don’t know can hurt you and your family members. There are lots of reasons why it wasn’t done in the past, not the least of which was that affordable testing was not available and the danger was never as high as it is today. But affordable testing ($35.00 - $50.00 per test) is available today, and results can be had within several days.
So why does everyone tell us there is nothing to worry about, and to test is to overreact? In fact, why do the folks at the health department or extension service tell us there is nothing to worry about? Because they just don’t know the facts. When you go to the doctor with diarrhea or another ailment, do you then come back and call the health department to report your illness? And then call the Environmental health department and Agricultural Extension Service or the CDC or the Public Health Service to report your illness to them? And then do you notify your neighbors or other local authorities that you were diagnosed with an intestinal “parasite”? If not, then you understand why no one in North Georgia, including the authorities, has any idea how many local outbreaks of Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Enteric viruses, Hepatitis A, or any other kind of waterborne diseases there are in their community. There is NO system for reporting these incidents to any one agency, who then informs the public. So we all think everything is OK, even when there may be numerous cases of different waterborne infections occurring each month, and even when some elderly and infants and immunocompromised individuals are dying from the effects of such infections. Then there are the many people who attribute their bout of “intestinal flu” or “upset stomach” or “belly ache” to food poisoning or a multitude of other illnesses, simply because they don’t know their water may be contaminated and that they can clean it up.
I don’t know if there will ever be any good system for reporting these illnesses. But I do know that we do not have to get sick from them, if only we take a few simple steps. Test and if called for, purify our drinking water. No matter what the source. Test for coliforms and E. coli (fecal coliforms) before using a pond for swimming and refrain from swimming in water that exceeds the internationally accepted standards for water safety. (The accepted standard for fresh water bathing (full body contact) in the United States has come to be 200 fecal coliforms (E. coli) per 100 milliliters of water, although some agencies use 126 per 100mls). Believe it or not, the law says that if these numbers are exceeded, public fresh-water beaches must be closed, and many are. Currently, we know of several beaches in Cherokee county that have been closed, and one that has been closed for many years because of this issue alone. This testing however, is not required on a routine basis, and there are therefore many beaches and private campground lakes and ponds, open to the public that may in fact be unsafe. A few beaches are monitored routinely by the government, but usually an illness must be reported before any testing is done. Since the law does not require routine testing or monitoring, it is usually only done in response to a problem.
Even municipal water purification systems have numerous incidences where bacteria and even disease causing parasites pass right through their purification devices and escape into the public drinking water. Again, there is no mechanism for tracking, recording, and reporting such occurrences and it is well known in the water treatment community that even significant outbreaks often slip through the cracks and are not reported unless there are large numbers of individuals who get very sick and there are also some fatalities. Such outbreaks have occurred close to home-in Georgia (Carrolton Georgia had a major Cryptosporidium outbreak which killed a number of individuals and made an estimated 13,000 others sick). Thousands became ill and when the local hospital / doctor is suddenly flooded with that many individuals, all with the same symptoms, and fatalities may be involved, then and investigation may be launched, and the causes brought to light. This is just not the way it works in most cases of such outbreaks because fewer individuals are affected and die.
The EPA makes it very clear that we are all responsible for our own private drinking water supplies, and that they should be tested annually, but most folks rely on the “I’ve been drinking my water for years and haven’t had any problems” or “mountain water is the purest water you can get” or “spring water comes out of the ground, so it must be safe” or “I talked to the county agent and health department and they told me there is nothing to worry about” or even, “my neighbor says I don’t need to worry”, anecdotes. They may make us feel better about not testing, but they will not protect us from becoming ill. Some of the contaminants in our drinking water do not produce acute illnesses (make us sick right away), instead, arsenic for example, is suspected of causing bladder and skin cancers if ingested over long periods of time at low levels. Nowadays the average life expectancy for both women and men is into the 80’s. Why then are so many in certain rural areas dying in their 60’s?
We know, although we were able to drink it safely even as recently as 40 years ago, not to drink untreated water when we go hiking. The risk is simply too great. And this is water in the most pristine areas of our country. What about water downstream from farms and concentrated animal feeding operations? Have we forgotten our common sense? In Minnesota, 100% of the muskrats and 7% of the beavers examined were positive for Giardia . In four Northeastern states (Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont), the corresponding figures were 94% for muskrats and 17% for beavers.
And what about recreational waters. What about swimming and water skiing and canoeing or kayaking? Advisories are constantly issued for public areas telling swimmers and recreational water users to stay out of the water. They are often posted right on the beaches. In Cherokee county several beaches at lake Altoona, and several recreational camping areas, including the one at Acworth have been closed for years because of high fecal coliform counts. The bottom line is you should not go swimming in water that has fecal coliform counts higher than 200 per 100 milliliters.
But how do you know what the coliform counts are? Surely the government is testing regularly at all the beaches and recreational facilities to be sure they are safe. No, they are not! Well then, who is testing (no one except you)? When do they test? Usually they only test when complaints are lodged by someone using the water or if conditions suggest there may be a problem at a particular location. For example, when it is known that a sewage treatment plant overflowed into a nearby stream or lake as a result of heavy rain, and downstream areas may be affected (including wells near the affected rivers and lakes). But you can have your water tested by simply making one phone call to us.
So the grandkids are coming up for the summer. What can I do to be sure they are safe? Just have a simple fecal coliform (E. coli) test done at the local “swimming hole” and also have a microscopic exam to see if there are any toxin producing algae present in the water, and have the water quality evaluated before letting them engage in “full immersion” activities in the water. This may not guarantee their good health, but it will surely avoid exposure to water where contamination is present at dangerous levels. (Please note: we have omitted any discussion of chemical contamination by industry or natural causes such as Cyanobacterial toxins. Please contact us if you would like to know more about this.)
The object of this article is not to frighten the public. We wish to update, inform, alert, enlighten, and help prevent unnecessary illnesses and let the public know how to assure themselves that they are doing all the need to, in order to remain healthy and enjoy our natural resources safely. All of the information in this article is supported by the latest research and health publications. We will be happy to make the sources known to you if you wish to learn more. Just browse our web site at www.awsa.info or call us at 706-219-3349 and tell us what you want. We can provide free seminars on a limited basis if a group would like to know more about any of these topics. Just contact us toll free at 1-866-626-1716.
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