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Indiana Department of Environmental Management

IDEM > Your Environment > Indiana Beach Program > Indiana Beaches: Frequently Asked Questions Indiana Beaches: Frequently Asked Questions

How does sewage enter the beach water?

Sewage enters the waterway from combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants. Untreated storm water run-off from cities and rural areas can be another significant source of beach water pollution. In some areas, human waste from boats and malfunctioning septic systems can also contribute to beach water pollution.

Combined sewer systems are designed to carry both raw sewage and storm water runoff to wastewater treatment plants. During heavy rainstorms, these systems can become hydraulically overloaded and discharge a mixture of raw sewage and polluted run-off from streets into local waterways. The discharge pollutes water around the outfalls and at downstream beaches.

What are fecal coliform?

Fecal coliform are bacteria that are associated with human or animal waste. They usually live in human or animal intestinal tracts, and their presence in drinking water is a strong indication of recent sewage or animal waste contamination.

Are there other ways for E. coli or other fecal coliform to get into the water?

E. coli comes from human and animal waste. During rainfalls, snow melts, or other types of precipitation, E. coli may be washed into creeks, rivers, streams, lakes, or groundwater. When these waters are used as sources of drinking water and the water is not treated or inadequately treated, E. coli may end up in drinking water.

What health problems might a swimmer experience if swimming in contaminated waters?

Swimmers are at risk for a broad range of adverse health effects. These include fever, nausea, and gastroenteritis. Flu-like symptoms, such as nasal congestion, sore throat, fever, and/or coughing are also possible. Storm drains can even be a source of problems during drier weather because broken pipes or connections to sanitary disposal systems may contribute pathogens to the storm drains.

Swimming-related illnesses are typically minor. This means that they require little or no treatment, respond readily to treatment and have no long-term health effects. The most common illness associated with swimming in water polluted by sewage is gastroenteritis. It occurs in a variety of forms that can have the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache, and fever. Other minor illnesses associated with swimming include ear, eye, nose, and throat infections.

Who is most vulnerable to poor water quality?

Children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are most likely to develop illnesses or infections after swimming in polluted water.

There are several things you can do to reduce the likelihood of getting sick from swimming at the beach. First find out which beaches are monitored regularly and posted for advisories or swimming advisories. You are less likely to be exposed to polluted water at beaches that are monitored regularly and posted for health hazards. In areas not monitored regularly, choose swimming sites in less developed areas with good water circulation. You should also avoid swimming at beaches with visible discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall. Since most swimmers are exposed to pathogens by swallowing the water, you will be less likely to get sick if you wade or swim without submerging your head.

Not all illnesses from a day at the beach are from swimming. Food poisoning from improperly refrigerated picnic lunches may also occur with some of the same symptoms as swimming-related illnesses, including stomachache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

What is a "Beach Closing?"

See for a detailed explanation of beach closing.

How do pets affect the beach waters?

Your pet's waste may eventually contaminate beach water. Your pet's waste carries bacteria, viruses and parasites that can enter the water and increase the level of bacteria detected. Properly cleaning up after your pet can lessen the likelihood of your pet's waste entering the beach waters.

As your pet's waste enters the water, decomposition begins. The decomposition of animal waste requires a high level of oxygen. This decomposition reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen existing in the water that aquatic life needs to survive.

How does feeding shorebirds affect the beach water?

Feeding shorebirds not only discourages them to find food on their own, but also leads to water contamination. The waste from shorebirds may eventually make its way to the beach waters. Human contamination and animal contamination, such as from mammals and birds, is difficult to distinguish and requires additional testing to determine if the bacteria is from wildlife, domestic animals or humans.

Thanks for helping us keep Indiana's Lake Michigan Shoreline Clean!

*These questions and responses were developed by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.