Beach Water Contamination and Your Health

About Harmful Bacteria

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a type of fecal coliform bacteria that live in the intestines of animals and humans. The presence of E. coli in the water along Lake Michigan’s shoreline is a strong indication that the water was recently contaminated by sewage or animal fecal waste. These wastes may contain many types of harmful disease-causing organisms. IDEM’s Indiana BeachGuard Monitoring and Notification System provides E. coli monitoring data on Lake Michigan's beaches and notifies the public about contamination advisories and beach closings.

Contamination Advisories and Beach Closings

In the event that a water sample collected from a monitored beach exceeds the Indiana single sample maximum water quality standard for E. coli of 235 colony forming units (CFUs) per 100 milliliters (ml), beach managers will post contamination advisories warning beachgoers that there is an enhanced risk of illness due to contact with the water. In some cases, especially if E. coli concentrations are significantly higher than 235 CFUs per 100 ml, beach managers will post notifications that the beach has been closed to swimming. The Lake Michigan Beach Monitoring and Notification Program page provides examples of the signage that beach managers post.

How Beach Water Gets Contaminated

Beach water can become contaminated by sewage when:

  • Wastewater treatment plants malfunction
  • Sanitary sewers overflow
  • Combined sewer systems overload during rainstorms and discharge raw sewage and polluted run-off from streets into local waterways, including beach areas (see the Combined Sewer Overflows fact sheet on the IDEM Fact Sheets page)
  • Boaters improperly manage human waste
  • Septic systems malfunction

Beach water can also become contaminated by untreated storm water run-off from cities and rural areas. During rainfalls, snow melts, and other types of precipitation, fecal waste from pets, wildlife, and farm animals—which carries bacteria, viruses, and parasites—may be washed into nearby storm drains. Once this pollution has entered the sewer system, it is discharged usually untreated into waterways. Bacteria levels in beach water may rise, and high bacteria levels can lead to more beach contamination advisories and closures. During drier weather, broken pipes or connections to sanitary disposal systems may also contribute pathogens to storm drains.

Health Risks Of Swimming In Contaminated Water

Swimmers are at risk for a broad range of adverse health effects if they swim in contaminated water. The most common short-term illness associated with swimming in such water is gastroenteritis. It occurs in a variety of forms with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache, and fever. Other, often minor, illnesses associated with swimming include ear, eye, nose, and throat infections.

Not all illnesses from a day at the beach are from swimming. Food poisoning from improperly refrigerated picnic lunches may also result in some of the same symptoms as swimming-related illnesses. Food poisoning symptoms include stomachache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guide to outdoor food safety provides additional information.

People Most Vulnerable To Contaminated Water

Children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are most likely to develop illnesses or infections after swimming in polluted water. People who make full body contact with the water or those with exposed cuts are at greater risk than the general population when exposed to contaminated water.

How To Reduce Health Risks At The Beach

  • Check the Indiana BeachGuard Monitoring and Notification System for beaches that are regularly monitored for E. coli and pay attention to alerts and posted signage about potential health risks at these locations.
  • Choose swimming sites in less developed areas with good water circulation when swimming in areas not monitored regularly.
  • Avoid swimming at beaches with visible discharge pipes or at urban beaches after a heavy rainfall.
  • Wade or swim without submerging your head to avoid swallowing water and becoming exposed to pathogens.
  • Avoid water contact if there are breaks in the skin, such as cuts or open sores.

Get Involved

Citizens can help protect beach water quality by cleaning up after pets and avoiding the feeding of shorebirds. Learn other ways to get involved and protect our environment!