I-Team: The No. 1 thing to check before you leave for the beach

Tuesday, June 26, 2018
EMBED <>More Videos

N.C. environmental officials say check the results of your weekly water quality test.

MOREHEAD CITY, NC (WTVD) -- You've packed your bags, grabbed your chairs, lathered yourselves in sunscreen and head out for the water.

Now, imagine the frustration when you arrive and find a big sign that reads "SWIMMING ADVISORY."

With summer in full swing, North Carolina environmental officials are urging vacationers to check the results of their weekly water quality tests at more than 200 swimming sites along the coast.

The tests, according to J.D. Potts, Water Quality Manager with the North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries, are essential to prevent swimmers from getting sick because of high levels of bacteria.


"We have a comprehensive program," Potts explained to the I-Team. "We're most likely going to have a monitoring site most likely somewhere near where they plan to vacation."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the standards for water quality, hoping to limit a swimmer's exposure to harmful levels of bacteria and viruses while participating in water-contact activities such as swimming, wading, and surfing. The Centers for Disease Control added that people can contract the pathogens by "swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers, or oceans."

On a visit with Potts to Radio Island and Atlantic Beach, the I-Team watched as Potts collected water samples to test for a bacteria called Enterococci. The bacteria itself isn't what makes people sick, but Potts said it's an indicator of how much fecal matter - animal droppings - is in the water, and thus the potential for things like salmonella and norovirus to also be in the water.

"It can come in through your nose, it can enter through your ears, and in some cases it could be skin infections from water entering the wounds," Potts added, cautioning against the thinking that the only way to get sick is by swallowing the water. "You really have to be careful for the kids who love going underwater."

Already this year, sections of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina were placed under a swimming advisory because of high levels of bacteria. Last year, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality issued 22 alerts and advisories, including sites in Currituck and New Hanover counties.


In addition to salt water sites on the coast, the I-Team learned that Wake County crews test 19 swimming sites at area lakes, including Falls Lake, Lake Wheeler and Upstead State Park. According to Wake County Environmental Services, samples are taken at least once a week during the summer season (late May to Labor Day weekend) for E. coli and Enterococci bacteria in order to inform swimmers and others who come in contact with the water regarding bacteria levels in recreational water. These bacteria are plentiful in feces of humans and animals and indicate presence of feces, which may contain pathogens capable of causing human illness.

Michael Orban, Wake County's Water Quality Director, said the weather can play a big part in either increasing or decreasing levels of bacteria.

"When you have periods of rainfall followed by periods of drought, you can have accumulation that's flushed off the surface of the land in the land and a slow cooking and evaporation," he said.

The N.C. Recreational Water Quality Program Division of Environmental Health puts out this list of recommendations to reduce the risk of illness when swimming or playing in natural bodies of water:

  • Choose swimming areas carefully
  • Pay attention to signage and avoid swimming in coastal waters that are under a swimming advisory and in inland waters that have been closed or under advisory because of pollution or other risks
  • Do not swim or play in stagnant water or water with dead fish or algae in it
  • Do not swim or play in natural waters immediately after a heavy rain, as contaminants in the surrounding area may have washed into the water
  • Do not swim or play in waters near sewer pipes, discharge pipes, or storm drain outlets
  • Do not swim in water that is also frequented by livestock or other land animals
  • Take simple precautions
  • Avoid getting the water in your mouth, and do not drink or swallow the water
  • Reduce the risk of water going up your nose by holding your nose shut or using nose clips when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater such as lakes, rivers, or hot springs
  • Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas
  • Do not swim in natural waters, whether fresh or salt water, if you have open wounds or sores.
  • Shower with soap and water after swimming or playing in the water
  • Promptly tend to any wounds, cuts or abrasions you get while in or near the water
  • Thoroughly wash the wound with clean, potable water and soap, and seek a doctor's care if a rash or swelling develops around the wound or it appears infected
  • Seek a doctor's care immediately if you become ill or develop symptoms of an infection
  • Prevent spread of illness to others
  • Shower with soap before entering the water
  • Don't swim if you have diarrhea
  • Change children's diapers frequently, and dispose of soiled diapers in appropriate trash receptacles

If you develop diarrhea or an infection after swimming in North Carolina's coastal waters, seek medical treatment and contact the Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality Section of the Division of Environmental Health at (252) 726-6827.

The Recreational Water Quality Program's staff would like to know about any possible water-borne illness outbreaks as soon as possible to prevent more people from becoming ill.

For more information, click here for a FAQ from the NCDEQ.