Curious City: Scoop on the Poop at Chicago Beaches

Curious City: Scoop on the Poop at Chicago Beaches
 Recently NPR/WBEZ reporter Monica Eng called me about a question I submitted to WBEZ’s Curious City. She asked if I’d like to meet her at the Illinois water testing lab at UIC. Here’s what happened.

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until about a decade ago, when she says a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because E. coli levels were too high.

Ever since, Regan’s been worried about water safety at Chicago beaches.

Still, for a while, she felt confident the city was responsibly warning people and closing beaches when fecal bacteria (measured through E.coli) got too high.

“In the early 2000s, they really reported that every day, and you’d hear it on WBEZ,” she recalls. “It was on the regular Chicago news. But I don’t hear it at all now.”

So Regan wrote in to Curious City with a few questions:

Is that water safe for dogs? Why don’t they close the beaches for E. coli anymore? Are Chicago beaches safe [from bacteria]?

The answer to that last question depends on a lot of things, like which beach you visit, what day you visit, and how old and healthy you are. But it’s an important question because, on most summer days, at least one Chicago beach has elevated fecal bacteria levels. In fact, one city beach recently saw a level more than 300 times the federal notification level — and remained open. Also, the public appears to be confused about how to interpret the city’s new swim advisory system. And so, in an effort to clear up any such confusion, we offer this handy primer on fecal bacteria on Chicago beaches.

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because of high E. coli levels. (Courtesy Regan Burke)

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because of high E. coli levels. (Courtesy Regan Burke)

How do I find out how dirty a beach is?

Each morning at dawn, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers collect two water samples from at least 20 Chicago beaches. The samples are delivered to a UIC lab where they are tested for enterococci, a fecal indicator bacteria. The park district then takes the two readings for each beach and calculates a geometric mean (which is not the method recommended by the EPA; more on that later).

The city communicates its recommendations to beachgoers in three ways: on the park district’s website, through the city’s data portal, and through a flag system at the beach. Here’s how you can find it online:

Keep in mind that the Chicago Park District only posts the average (geometric mean). If you’re good with spreadsheets and you’d like to find the highest sample at your favorite beach on a given day, go to the city’s data portal after 1 p.m., export the data into Excel, and then sort to find the correct day and beach. Look under the “DNA sample” columns to find that day’s readings.

You can also check the flags posted at each beach:

Beach flags graphic

How can I stay safe?

Check the levels for your beach before you go. If fecal bacteria levels are anywhere near 1000 CCE, UIC public health scientists Sam Dorevitch and Abhilasha Shrestha say to consider avoiding contact with the water, particularly if you are:

  • Elderly
  • Very young
  • Immune-compromised
  • Pregnant
  • Or have an open wound
  • If you go to the beach before the website is updated, keep in mind that hard rains the previous day often result in high fecal levels the next morning.
  • If you swim on a day when levels exceed 1000 CCE, be careful not to swallow water or dunk your head.
  • Always wash your hands after swimming, especially before eating.

What can I do to make beaches safer?

  • Clean up your:
    • Food
    • Garbage
    • Diapers
    • Pet poop
  • Don’t feed the birds.

Wait. What? The city doesn’t follow EPA suggestions on when to warn people?

That’s right. The EPA suggests advising the public to take precautions when any single sample is above 1,000 CCE. The Chicago Park District, however, determines whether to notify the public based on the geometric mean of its two samples (which will always be lower than the highest single sample). In its 2012 guidance, the EPA suggests using the geometric mean “to assess the longer-term health of the waterbody”; not to determine whether to issue a daily warning. None of this EPA guidance is legally enforceable; it’s just a suggestion based on extensive research.

Officials from the park district defended their use of the geometric mean in a statement, saying: “Densities of [fecal indicator bacteria] are highly variable in ambient waters therefore a measure based off of a distribution, such as [geometric mean]…, are more robust than single estimates.”

Chicago Beach Poop By the Numbers, 2018 Edition

We crunched enterococci data from last summer, totaling 101 days. Below are some highlights, which take into account the differing standards used by the city and suggested by the EPA. Here are some highlights:

And what about the dogs and E. coli?

Chicago veterinarian Dr. Vaishaili Joshi says that dogs are exposed to E. coli all the time and usually don’t get sick. But, like humans, “immunocompromised pets, juveniles and seniors may be at higher risk of infection secondary to heavy exposure.”

More about our questioner

Regan Burke is a Chicago writer who worked in local and national politics — for Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Adlai Stevenson — for most of her professional life. She details that part of her life in the upcoming book, I Want To Be In That Number, which she says is all about “politics and nervous breakdowns.”

As Regan grew up in Chicago and around the Midwest, she says her mom would often tease her for being a “nature lover.”

“I always thought of myself as a city person, but I do love nature,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m more interested and cognizant of what’s outside my window than what’s inside my apartment.”

When she heard the final answers to her questions about the nature on the lake, she had a couple of reactions.

“Well, I’m very impressed at the level of testing that they do on the Chicago beaches,” she says. “But, at the same time, we don’t get the results until 1:30 in the afternoon.”

Still, Regan was pleased to hear that dogs are not very susceptible to E. coli., despite what the lifeguard seemed to imply.

But when she heard that the city will never puts up a red flag or close a beach, even when fecal levels skyrocket, she was not pleased.

“That, to me, is appalling,” Regan says. “The idea that at 1000 CCE there is a health risk — I can buy that. But when it’s 300,000 and they don’t close the beaches? I mean, how sick are people getting? And people go to the beach with their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. They must close the beaches when that happens. It’s just appalling.”

The 9 minute audio story has more information. Listen here.

Submit your own question to Curious City here.

Follow Monica Eng:  @monicaeng.

Poop flag by Katherine Nagasawa/WBEZ

 

Bring On The Border Collies

Bring On The Border Collies

On cloudless Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I’d fill my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, and a small purse.

I’d strap the chair to my back, grip Usher’s leash and walk across Michigan Avenue through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I’d hurry past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We’d climb the cracked cement stairs landing on the maniacal bike path that gripped the edge of the beach.

During mid-week Junes, Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Seagulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.  

Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on Lake Shore Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the sand under my chair and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim and reposition my chair. 

Nearly every week I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and seagulls singing over the water. 

We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.

One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach, “get your dog out of the water!”

“Didn’t you see the red flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.”

I packed up immediately, ran home and gave the poor guy a bath.

Chicago beaches are tested for e.coli every day in the summer. In the 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the e.coli landed on the beaches from seagulls and washed into the lake. 

(Huh? It was in the sand, too?)

The press reported there was a 24-hour delay in test results so at that time, when the beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day th-1before. The Chicago Park District solved the problem by hiring Border Collies to chase the gulls off the beach. 

A dime-size major ecosystem disrupter has recently multiplied in the Great Lakes. The quagga mussel hitchhikes from the Ukraine on ships moving through the St. Lawrence Seaway, siphoning and digesting microscopic food, including e.coli. These good-guys/bad-guys may have put the collies out of business.

My beach days were over the day the collies started shooing away the gulls. Usher didn’t mind, but I was constantly reminded of bacteriological threats. I don’t know if the quagga have made the beach safe now, but the Chicago Park District has abandoned their Border Collie program. 

I, however, have found simply watching the water reflect the ultramarine sky from the crazy bike path is just as idyllic.


Do you have nuisance birds? Wild Goose Chase, Inc. uses Border Collies to humanely control Canada Geese, seagulls, pigeons, sparrows, starlings and others. Contact them here.