Bacteria Warnings Hit N.H., Maine Coast
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. This summer has seen a record number of warnings about bacteria at coastal beaches in New Hampshire and Maine. "The record was maybe three postings in a year. This year, we've already had six postings," said Jody Connor of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. He says heavy rains this year are likely to blame for the high bacteria levels.
Maine officials as of late July had issued more beach closures and advisories than they had for all of last summer. There were high bacteria counts at several southern Maine beaches even though the area did not get significant rainfall.
Environmental officials say unusually high tides that flush pollutants from salt marshes may explain why many beaches in Maine and other New England states were posted with health advisories or closed last month.
The so-called spring tides that occur during a full or new moon are known to wash pollutants from salt marshes into the surf zones of beaches, said Matthew Liebman, a biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency's New England office.
In New Hampshire, the six warnings applied to only 15 saltwater beaches which are tested about twice a week.
Another 165 freshwater beaches at lakes, rivers and ponds are tested monthly and warnings have also been posted at several of those sites at various times this summer.
Current water-quality tests measure levels of enterococci in saltwater and E.coli in freshwater. Swimming in water with high levels of such bacteria can cause vomiting, cramps, skin rashes and eye and ear infections.
Richard Langan, co-director of the University of New Hampshire's Cooperative Institute for Coastal and Estuarine Environmental Technology said enterococci and E.coli can come from human sewage or from animals that defecate near the water, but the human sources pose the greatest danger.
Under the current system, water is tested for bacteria by taking samples from the beach back to a laboratory. Technicians filter the samples and wait 24 hours to see how many bacteria colonies have grown in the water.
But Langan's institute is looking at new ways to cut down on the testing time. A recent study has highlighted the potential of two new testing systems that are 80 percent accurate and deliver results within four hours. The study focused on California beaches but Langan says accurate and fast water-quality tests are just as important to coastal communities in New Hampshire and Maine.
"Not just here in New England, but throughout the country, beach closures are a significant problem that appear to be getting worse," Langan said.
He said the new methods are promising, but further studies are needed before public health officials could rely on the tests to monitor state beaches.
Years down the road when technology improves, Langan said, it might be possible to create a dipstick that would read bacteria levels in the water within minutes.
"The faster you get results, the better off you are in closing the beach," he said. "With the Internet, someone could then upload the data immediately and let people know whether a beach is safe."
Source: Associated Press