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State beaches looking good but swimmers should keep their eyes open

Ducks like this one at Gilford Beach are fun to see but waterfowl can also carry a parasite on their feet. The parasite can penetrate the skin on humans and cause a condition know as “duck itch” or “swimmers itch,” one reason why officials discourage people from feeding ducks and geese where people are swimming. Donna Rhodes. (click for larger version)
July 14, 2010
LAKES REGION — With summer heat beating down on the Lakes Region people are swarming to local beaches to seek respite from the recent heat wave. With this influx of beachgoers and swimmers comes an increase in bacteria entering New Hampshire's waters, monitored closely by the State Beach Inspection program, under the Department of Environmental Services.

"We can't test everywhere that people swim but we do test the popular swimming areas and advise the towns or the beach owners if any problems are detected," said Program Director Sonya Carlson.

Some towns like Northfield monitor their waters more frequently, but generally test samples are taken at beaches at least three times throughout the summer unless lab results show bacteria counts higher than 88 parts per million. Depending on how high over the state limit those counts are, a beach may be posted with an advisory, warning swimmers about the bacterial counts.

"We make phone calls to whoever is in charge of the beach and provide them with yellow warning signs to let people know there is a problem and it might not be a good idea to swim there," Carlson said.

From there the inspectors continue collecting samples every day until the bacteria counts return to state standards. The results are back from the lab within 24 hours after a water sample is taken and advisories are removed as soon as a good result is found.

"We only test for E.coli (Escherichia coli) because there are so many other things that could be present but E.coli counts are a good indicator that there's a problem with the waters," she said.

Unlike cyanobacteria, which causes an obvious blue-green appearance to the water, a beachgoer is generally not going to notice any problem with E.coli as it is detected in laboratories, but Carlson said there a few signs people can look for that might indicate water quality.

"Fecal matter or a presence of ducks and geese can give you a clue there could be problems with the water. I always say if the water looks gross then don't go in."

Those other problems could include bacteria from water fowl, which can cause a condition commonly known as "duck itch." Otherwise known as "swimmer's itch," it is primarily caused by a tiny parasite carried by aquatic and migratory birds. A patchy red pinpoint rash forms on the skin, which will begin to itch within 48 hours and can last for up to a week. The itch can be addressed with over-the-counter medications but the rash will eventually disappear on its own. Carlson said washing will help prevent the rash or people should simply avoid swimming in water with ducks and geese present.

"That's why people shouldn't feed them at the beach. You don't want to encourage them to stay where people are swimming," she said.

Lifeguards also suggest people towel dry thoroughly when getting out of the water and use lots of sunscreen to help keep the parasite from infesting the skin.

Carlson said it is not a good idea to bring pets to the beach either as fecal matter from them could also cause problems with bacteria.

"If you do bring your dog it's important to clean up after them and keep any feces away from the water," she said.

So far the summer advisories have been on par with last year with 15 advisories posted around the state. In the Lakes Region advisories for Opechee, Bartlett and Weirs Beaches were given earlier in the summer but have since been removed.

Beachgoers can check the state's Beach Inspection Program website at www.des.nh.gov for up-to-date advisories on cyanobacteria and E.coli or call the local health official in the town where they plan to swim. "Swimming in a natural body of water can be a lot of fun but people should be aware of the surroundings and never drink the water," Carlson advised.

Littleton Chmber
Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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