Question of the Week

July 2, 2007


This summer, thousands will head to the beach.

"Tampa, Florida - The Hillsborough County Health Department has issued a health advisory for Ben T. Davis Beach due to elevated levels of bacteria found in the waters. As a result, the beach has been closed to swimming. Patrons can still sunbath on the beach or picnic, but it is recommended that they not enter the water. Signs have been posted and staff is on duty to monitor and alert the public of the health advisory. ... According to the Hillsborough County Health Department, heavy rains cause polluted storm water runoff as well as waste from boats, pets, wildlife and human sewage, which contribute to the rise in harmful bacteria levels."
Tampa Bay's 10 News

Beaches around the country are periodically closed to swimmers because of high bacteria levels in the water. To reduce the risk of illness from bacteria found in the water, you can check with local health officials before going to the beach and/ or look for posted signs when visiting.

Whether or not you see signs posted, it is always best to check with the lifeguard about the safety and conditions of the water before swimming or wading. They can often recommend the safer sections of beach and water while letting visitors know about possible unseen hazards.

"Lifeguards closed Shepard Park beach on Memorial Day after they performed more than 200 rescues during a three hour period. ... The heavy surf along the coast of Central Florida has punched holes in sandbars, allowing rip currents to funnel through the holes and pull swimmers out to sea. Meanwhile, in Daytona Beach, dozens of people were rescued after getting trapped in rip currents, Local 6's Tarik Minor said. 'It is a risk for everyone,' lifeguard Libby Michelini said. 'It is a risk for strong swimmers and small children and we are really trying to make sure we don't have any bathers caught in those.' There were also two near-deaths in the surf in New Smyrna Beach Monday, Minor said. Lifeguards in Daytona Beach said they have been fielding calls about missing children all day because of the strong currents."

Rip currents can be dangerous for everyone: from the smallest child to the strongest swimmer.

"Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes. Rip currents can be killers. The United States Lifesaving Association estimates that the annual number of deaths due to rip currents on our nation's beaches exceeds 100. Rip currents account for over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Rip currents account for thousands of rescues each year. Unfortunately, not everyone is rescued. To increase the chances of surviving a rip current, it is important for people to know ahead of time what to do.

"If caught in a rip current: * Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
* Never fight against the current.
* Think of it like a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which you need to step to the side of.
* Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle--away from the current--towards shore.
* If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
* If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

While rip currents are one of the most common hazards hidden in the water, there are other -- less common -- hazards that often get more attention and should certainly not be ignored.

"Florida beach closed after sharks sighted.
A beach in Florida had to be closed off when a group of bull sharks was spotted swimming close to shore. Lifeguards were forced to evacuate the area as the group of around six bull sharks moved as close as 3m from South Walton beach. Hundreds of swimmers had to leave the water, while lifeguards used jet skis to herd the sharks to deeper water. The sharks, some estimated to be as long as 3m, stayed for two hours before eventually moving on."
Dive Magazine

In addition to the hidden hazards, there can very obvious hazards that are just not seen as dangerous.

"Waves and sharks aren't the only dangers at the beach. More than two dozen young people have been killed over the last decade when sand holes collapsed on them... Among them was Matthew Gauruder, who died in a collapse at an after-prom beach party in Westerly, R.I., in May 2001. The 17-year-old was playing football with friends when he jumped for a pass and fell backward into an 8-foot-deep hole someone had dug earlier. Sand hole collapses occur horrifyingly fast, said Dr. Bradley Maron of Harvard Medical School, the report's lead author. 'Typically, victims became completely submerged in the sand when the walls of the hole unexpectedly collapsed, leaving virtually no evidence of the hole or location of the victim,' wrote Maron, an internal medicine resident. ... People naturally worry about splashier threats, like shark attacks. However, the Marons' research found there were 16 sand hole or tunnel deaths in the U.S. from 1990-2006, compared with 12 fatal shark attacks for the same period, according to University of Florida statistics."
WAOI, San Antonio

While very few would choose to swim with a shark, many see digging a hole at the beach as a right.

"[Dr. Bradley Maron of Harvard Medical School] and others advise the public not to let young kids play in sand unattended, and not to get in a hole deeper than your knees. On Martha's Vineyard, lifeguards are instructed to order children and adults out of any hole deeper than a child's waist, and to kick sand in to fill them, [Dennis Arnold, who runs the beach patrol in the Martha's Vineyard community of Edgartown] said. Occasionally, some parents protest. 'They'll say "You're ruining my kids day!" I say "I don't care,"' Arnold said. Mavis Gauruder, who lives in Fort Mill, S.C., said she's tried to issue similar warnings, like the time she came upon a father digging a hole with a garden shovel for his young son. She went up to the pair and warned them of the dangers. The man seemed unmoved, so she finally told him she'd had a tragedy in her family involving a hole collapse. 'I asked them to fill in the hole. They did, but they looked at me like I was interfering,' she said."
WOAI, San Antonio

Questions of the Week:
What do you need to know before going to the beach? What do your friends and family members need to know? What would be the best way to get them this information in a way that they would listen? How is this information different if the beach is on an ocean, lake, river, or other body of water? Where is the line between having fun while being careful and being paranoid?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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