Looking to take a dip in the rivers? Swim at your own risk
With oppressive heat in the forecast, swimsuit-clad crowds are expected to not only hit local pools but area rivers and lakes where funky things can happen if swimmers don’t take a few precautions, according to experts.
The good news is Southwestern Pennsylvania does not have flesh-eating bacteria and the rash of other maladies reported in the media recently.
“Risks in Western Pennsylvania are very minimal,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and Pittsburgh-based infectious disease physician.
The recently reported skin infections occurred in saltwater where certain bacteria thrive, Adalja said.
However, there are harmful bacteria here. The most concerning is fecal bacteria, which can include E. coli, a contaminant that swimmers want to avoid.
The presence of E. coli indicates human or animal waste, which harbors other pathogens that can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea and vomiting.
These symptoms are collectively known as gastroenteritis and can lead to serious illness in children, the elderly and other people with weakened immune systems.
Heavy rains carry fecal bacteria from sewage and stormwater systems, farms and wildlife areas where geese and other animals congregate.
Swimmers should cover cuts and bruises and clean them after they come out of the water, Adalja advised. Then they should monitor the abrasions to make sure there is no subsequent redness of swelling indicating an infection. If an infection develops, they will have to seek medical help.
A number of government agencies report the release or presence of fecal and other bacteria in certain waterways, including:
• In Allegheny County, Alcosan issues “soak alerts” from the 170 outfalls with stormwater and/or diluted sewage into the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. There currently isn’t a soak alert on local rivers, however, local waterways might still be impaired by recent rains, according to Alcosan’s website. Additionally, Combined Sewage Overflow flags are posted in areas where people should avoid swimming on the rivers. To learn about soak alerts and CSO flags, visit: http://www.alcosan.org/SewerOverflowAdvisories/SOAKStatusChanges2019/tabid/115/Default.aspx
• All water at Pennsylvania state parks was deemed good for swimming Thursday, said Terry Brady, press secretary for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources “Heavy downpours, heavy public use, and many Canada geese in some area can change that overnight,” Brady said. All park pools and lake waters open to swimming are tested once a week for high bacteria counts, most commonly E. coli, Brady said. If swimming areas are closed, DCNR issues announcement in the media or on the park websites. https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/Recreation/WhatToDo/Swimming/Pages/default.aspx
• Water quality tests conducted this week at the blue hole at Forbes State Forbes in Somerset County show fecal bacteria and is not recommended for swimming, according to the Mountain Watershed Association, a nonprofit that tests 14 swimming holes weekly from May through September in the Youghiogheny River watershed, including Ohiopyle, and running from McKeesport to Confluence and beyond.
But tests taken Wednesday show Ohiopyle is good for swimming. The nonprofit offers only suggestions, which it makes available free to the public on the website: https://www.theswimguide.org/
Carla Ruddock, project manager and field technician for Mountain Watershed Association, said for the E. coli tests, the contaminants come from sewage and farm animals. Urban areas such as McKeesport with sewage overflows frequently test high for E. coli, but she doesn’t see people swimming there.
Water safety determined by the presence of E. coli and fecal bacteria varies, Ruddock said.
“We had a lot of areas not safe for swimming because of all the rain last year,” she said.
• The state Department of Environmental Protection does not have the regulatory authority to close beaches or waterway access for human health/safety reasons, said Lauren Fraley, DEP spokeswoman.
However, the agency is sampling and assessing portions of the Youghiogheny and Kiski River for aquatic life, potable water and fish consumption and recently began sampling these rivers for recreation. It plans to issue assessments for both in the next Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report in 2020, according to Fraley.
To check out DEP’s current water quality report including many waterways in the state, visit: https://www.dep.pa.gov/Business/Water/CleanWater/WaterQuality/IntegratedWatersReport/Pages/2018-Integrated-Water-Quality-Report.aspx.
Alcosan issues “soak alerts” from the 170 outfalls with stormwater and/or diluted sewage into the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. The story initially had attributed this responsibility to a different entity.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .