9 Surprising Diseases You Can Catch at the Beach

Posted In Blog, Pollution


By Barbara Fenig, in Huffington Post.

Whether we like it or not, our nation’s beaches are not as clean as we would prefer them to be. Ocean water contaminated with sewage, storm run-off and oil carries bacteria, parasites, and viruses, which can cause a variety of diseases. From Staph infections to earaches, hepatitis to skin rashes and respiratory issues, Americas waters are an environmental hot bed for infection. For the last five years, there have been 18,000 beaches closing across the United States. 2009 brought 18,682 days of closures and notices as a result of water contamination and pollution at beaches throughout the United States.

As summer ends, HuffPost Green decided to explore the range of possible illnesses that can be contracted at our nation’s beaches due to environmental contamination. While oiled beaches are making the most headlines this summer, there are numerous other contamination that can be found at the beach.

Recreational water illnesses can be caught by swallowing contaminated water, inhaling infected mist, and swimming in polluted waters.

Following, nine surprising infections that are found in the nation’s oceans.

Hepatitis is a concern for many swimmers, surfers and beachgoers in the United States due to the improper disposal of red waste, a hazardous waste, such as syringes. The disease can be spread in the nation’s waters through needle and blood pollution. Officials at Lake Michigan beaches encourage visitors to take caution at the beach this month. It is believed that the red waste pollution traveled from Milwaukee sewer overflows. The syringes could carry bacteria and viruses containing hepatitis and AIDS. At San Diego’s Imperial Beach, pollution is high in the popular surfing location. The beach receives sewage run-off from Southern California’s Tijuana River. Officials worry that bodies have been discarded into the area along the river, thus contaminating the water. Many local surfers received hepatitis-A vaccines.

Enteric bacteria.
Throughout Miami’s beaches this summer, along with other beaches in the United States, enteric bacteria has infiltrated the water. Transported by storm water and sewage run-off, the beaches become contaminated with fecal pollution, known as enterococci. The bacteria contaminates the intestinal tracts of humans and animals. In Miami’s Crandon Park, officials are weighing the possibility of contamination as a result of bird travel in the area. Enterococci can also cause urinary tract infections and meningitis.

Legionnaire’s Disease.
Legionnaire’s disease, a respiratory illness, is another commonly contracted waterborne infection. Legionella bacteria grow in warm water. The disease is contracted when one inhales mist or vapor that is contaminated with the bacteria. The Center for Disease Control reports that Legionnaire’s disease, a form of pneumonia, is one of three waterborne diseases that create over 539 million dollars in costs to the United States health care system per year. Legionnaire’s disease causes high fever, muscle aches, and coughing.

Oil Spill Related Illnesses.
Human contact with oil can cause a range of health issues, according to the Scientific American. Dermatitis and other skin infections can be contracted following dermal contact with oil or dispersants. Visitors to contaminated beaches can contract dermatitis from contact with crude oil in the water and weathered oil along the shores. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 270 people who aided with the clean up cited respiratory issues, such as “symptoms of chronic airway disease.” Winds can be contaminated with chemicals or compounds, which are often inhaled. Other symptoms include chest pain, dizziness, vomiting and headaches. Overall, the Gulf Oil Spill caused 2,239 closures, notices and advisories.

Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa).
Swimmer’s Ear, classified as otitis externa, is an infection of the external auditory canal that is often contracted during the summer in humid environments. The infected wounds are unable to dry and heal due to a buildup of perpetual moisture. This disturbs the skin’s ability to serve as a barrier. Swimmer’s ear is a common ailment for children and can be contracted in ocean water, pools and lakes. Infection can develop further if the skin forms micro abrasions, which hosts Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria, a bacteria naturally found in the environment.

Gastrointestinal illnesses are a common beach born infection. At 17 percent, San Francisco’s beaches had the highest bacteria exceedance rate. Bacteria rates were high in the beaches’ tested waters, which led the state to cite the beaches as unsafe for human contact. This year, Los Angeles boasted the most beach closing in California. Gastrointestinal illnesses cause diarrhea, which can be contracted from cryptosporidium, giardia, shigella, e.coli and norovirus.

Swimmer’s Itch (Schistosome cercarial dermatitis).
Swimmer’s itch, Schistosome cercarial dermatitis, is an itchy rash that is caused by parasites. Beaches throughout the United States, from the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest, are monitoring for summer outbreaks of the infection. Trematode parasites move from host to host. They first target the larva of snails, then inhabit the skin of aquatic birds and sometimes humans. The parasites mistakenly dig into the epidermis of humans rather than their intended host, most often ducks. Once in human skin, the presence of the trematode creates a rash called cercarial dermatitis.

Pink Eye, also called Conjunctivitis, is one of the most common eye infections that can be contracted in water. Ocean water, along with pool water, irritates the eyes causing people to touch the affected area, spreading the infection. Often people wear contact lenses at the beach, which harbors the bacteria.

Sub-tropical waters at beaches across the Mediterranean, California and Florida can be breeding grounds for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA. The waterborne bacteria, which spreads from one body to another through water, is washed into the ocean where the bacteria can infect populations of beachgoers. Swimmers have a 37 percent chance of exposure to this Staph infection.

More about MRSA

Original Article and Photos

NRDC’s Testing the Waters database
Check the status of your favorite beaches at the NRDC’s Testing the Waters database.

Center for Disease Control’s Healthy Swimming site


2 Comments to “9 Surprising Diseases You Can Catch at the Beach”

  • Woah! Cray cray (crazy crazy) this makes so much sense!

  • Took family out to beach yesterday at santa rosa beachfl, fl by the gulf of Mexico. Can anyone tell me why the ocean mist coming off the gulf made us cough uncontrollably and felt like fiberglass was feeling our lungs. It was a painful experience.

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