What’s In Your Water? The Straight Dope On Triathlon Water Quality

Beach closed

In lake and ocean-based races, you’re sharing the water with more than just your fellow triathletes

Participants in last month’s HITS triathlon series Ocala event got a nasty surprise on the event’s last day. After several of the events in the multi-distance weekend were over, signs were posted in a beach to the south of the swim start reading “Beach closed due to bacteria. Stay out.” To the side was an extra note saying “County order.” Concerned participants contacted TRS Triathlon encouraging us to investigate.

Craig Ackerman is the Public Affairs Officer for the Florida Department of Health in Marion County. Speaking with TRS Triathlon, he said that there was a “bacterial spike” detected on Mill Dam Lake, a body of water several miles from Lake Weir where the HITS event was held.

“We mistakenly warned a beach owner on Lake Weir that we detected a huge spike near his beach. The owner of the beach decided to post the sign just to be safe, and the sign was still up during the competition.”

It’s an honest mistake that could happen anywhere, which is actually what makes the story interesting. As triathlon races continue to expand around the world, water pollution and contamination issues become more of a concern. It was a closely-monitored item in the Hudson River before Ironman’s ill-fated 2012 New York City event, and several Gulf Coast events were threatened by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. From fracking to lead pipes, the number of threats to open water have only increased. But what people don’t realize is it wasn’t the fear that Lake Weir had bacteria that caused the alarm. It was the level. According to Ackerman, bacteria have always been and always will be a perennial risk. Even if the high bacteria levels had been detected near the beach where the sign was located, the levels at the competition site may have been well within limits. It may seem odd that bacteria could be found in high concentrations of one part of a lake and not another, but Ackerman says such occurrences are routine for just about every body of fresh and saltwater in the U.S. and the world. In April of last year, all of Lake Weir was closed due to a blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) bloom that killed several fish. The bloom receded after about a week. According to Ackerman, these surges are an unavoidable consequence of urbanization and weather, and that harmful and even fatal bacteria are an omnipresent threat in any body of water accessible for recreational or competitive use. “These are natural water bodies and they always have something in them.”

Perhaps one of the best known swims in all of triathlon is the best example of Ackerman’s explanation. While athletes are mostly concerned about frigid water temperatures at San Francisco’s Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, there’s more in the water than just sea lions. According to the conservation activist group Save the Bay, approximately 3 million gallons of oil, gasoline, and other petroleum products are dumped into San Francisco Bay each year. And oil isn’t the only thing. Studies show that high concentrations of pharmaceuticals and pet waste may be affecting fish and wildlife. Save the Bay mentions on their site that bacteria found in cat feces has been linked to disease in swimmers miles from shore. Ackerman cites animal feces as a primary culprit in the bacterial risk. “You don’t want to swallow lake water even on a good day,” he says. “There are lots of wild raccoons and cats in the area, and rains wash it into lakes and streams. Animal feces is a huge source for the kinds of bacteria that are harmful to humans.”

According to Ackerman, people around the U.S. get sick from bacteria while visiting open water bodies every year. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reports 479 cases of illness associated with natural water bodies were reported in 2011-2012 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Naturally occurring bacteria were responsible for 21 outbreaks of infection that year. However, it is hard to track all cases because people who engage in outdoor aquatic recreation may travel great distances to get to them. This is typically the case with major races. The problem is made more complicated by a lack of any national tracking mechanism of water pollution. Such a chart is nearly impossible to devise, as separate states have different standards and methods for testing water quality.

Water Trash

photo credit: the beach via photopin (license)

In 2006 the Louisville Kentucky metro government, in conjunction with over 250 volunteers from environmental group Living Lands and Waters pulled eighteen tons of trash from the same waters used for the Ironman Louisville swim course. Items included over 500 tires, metal barrels (contents unknown), entire motor vehicles and yes, even the kitchen sink. The effort has become an annual event, but the amount of garbage hauled away each year indicates that pollution remains consistent.

Even still, there is no reason for health departments to post signs warning people that natural water bodies contain bacteria unless bacteria levels reach a threshold that exceeds EPA guidelines. “First, if we wanted to post signs saying that germs are present in natural water bodies, we’d have to post them on every lake and river,” says Ackerman. “Second, while many of these bacteria can be deadly, some of them you have to ingest them in a specific way for them to harm you. For example, Naegleria fowleri can cause a fatal brain infection, but you have to get it up your sinus cavity for it to actually harm you.” Some saltwater bacteria can cause terrible infections if they are swallowed or come into contact with open skin wounds. Between their varied distribution and the specific methods of ingestion necessary to actually get sick, a comparatively miniscule number of people actually get sick each year.

Beyond covering open sores and showering after getting out of the water (admittedly not much of an option for triathletes in a hurry to get out of T1), Ackerman says that remaining aware of potential threats and monitoring yourself for symptoms after an event are the best way to protect yourself. The day-to-day and area-to-area changes in bacterial concentrations also mean it’s a futile effort for race organizers to try to plan for issues months in advance. Like the rest of us, they’re at the mercy of the environment and the vagaries of the weather. The best thing for concerned athletes to do is keep in contact with public regulatory agencies and maintain a good sense of personal responsibility.

Featured image photo credit: Erin Freel/FB

About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.

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