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

 

White Room Valentine

White Room Valentine

The all-white ceiling, walls, sheets and blankets, sealed the room in purity. My pain-free body, surrounded by downy pillows, laid on a pressure-sensitive mattress. A wall of windows showed off the unobstructed Chicago skyline three miles away. 

I had a new knee. 

“Ceramic,” said the surgeon, “like Corning Ware.” 

The nurse floated in, smiled, said my name and schooled me on the morphine drip. She set graham crackers and apple juice ever so carefully on my shiny spic-and-span tray, showed me how to operate the TV, and placed my phone within reach.

“Did my doctor put me on the VIP floor?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is the floor for all the orthopedic patients. You just lucked out with the view.”

 The midday sun laid itself down on the city, my city, silhouetting the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. I drifted in and out as Lake Michigan peeked into the downtown streets and into my outstretched heart. Such joy. Comfort. Bliss. The phone vibrated at my fingertips, jiggling me awake.

“Hello? Regan? This is Joe.” 

Ah, my son. He’s calling to ask how I’m doing. 

“I hate bothering you like this. I’m in the hospital with my Dad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it.” 

I’d been divorced from Jim, the only man I ever loved, for about 45 years. We’d met in a Jersey Shore bar in the 1960’s. I lived and breathed politics. He was on scholarship at Princeton and was the first boy I knew who read the same books I did. He proudly proclaimed himself a Democrat when the rest of us were simply anti-war.

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Lifeguarding in the summer, he loved the ocean, birds, rock-and-roll and beer. We were born for each other, but drinking and drugs destroyed our marriage. We divorced and I got help. Jim became helplessly addicted to marijuana. By the time he got help, his brain was fried. Between the irreversible brain damage and advanced diabetes, he could not survive on his own. Rather than house his father in a full-time care facility, Joe brought him to live with Joe and his family in a Chicago suburb.

I saw Jim once in a while—at Christmas, the grandchildren’s high school graduations, birthdays. He always recognized me and engaged in conversations about politics. Watching local news on TV all day left him thinking he lived and voted in Chicago.

“About the mayor’s race. Who should I vote for?” He asked. “I don’t like that guy Rahm.”

One last time Jim tried to shake off his dementia. He scheduled a cruise, making all the arrangements himself. Joe gave the ship’s nurse a detailed description of his father’s condition. She guaranteed his safety. But barely off the coast of Florida, Jim slipped into a coma and was airlifted to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. He never recovered.

Joe and I talked until my painkillers wore off. Dusk overpowered the room. I banged the morphine pump, screamed for the nurse and wept for my long-ago lost love.

Hooligans in the Temple

Hooligans in the Temple

Standing in the driveway at 1000 Michigan Avenue in Wilmette, where we had lived for about a month, I posed with my tennis racket and ball while Erin snapped my picture with our family’s 1958 Kodak Brownie 127. We were playing in front of the garage doors on the west side of the house, an architectural oddity built into the side of the cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. The sun overhead lobbed burning sunbeams at my squinty-eyed face. Over my shoulder drooping into the curvy flagstone stairway leading down to our front door an overgrown lilac tree emitted a deep purple mid-June fragrance I’ve never forgotten. A robin strung together a complex trill from the upper branches of the evergreens that hugged the short driveway. My mother, not a naturalist in any sense of the word, somehow knew to teach Erin and me to recognize a robin’s song and the scent of lilacs.

We threw our rackets into our bike baskets, squeezed balls into the pockets of our Bermuda shorts and pedaled down red-bricked Michigan Avenue to our tennis lessons at

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Red Brick Road Michigan Avenue Wilmette

Gillson Park. Erin, a year younger, always aced her lessons and I always muddled through mine. We were both athletic enough but Erin outdid me in tennis. I was proud of her, and jealous.

Before heading home we rode over to Sheridan Road to the Bahia Temple. It had been open only a few years but neighborhood rumors said the big white Temple would soon be closed to the public. We laid our bikes in the greenish-blue lawn, climbed the white stairs and nonchalantly strolled around the outside. All the white doors were open but we saw no one. The stillness unnerved us. Holy. No chairs or pews sat in the white circular sanctuary. We pulled away from the white marble floor and creeped up three flights of white stairs to the white balcony. We peeked into the hush of the white holy. It was a long way down. I held a tennis ball over the white railing and looked at Erin. Her wide open face said,”let it go.” The ball fell into the white center of the sacred white floor. We froze. No one appeared. Then Erin dropped her tennis ball over the balcony. We crouched down and listened for the echoing plunk-a-plunk, then tore down the stairs and out to our bikes without looking back.

Halfway home we laughed so hard we fell into the thick grass by the side of the road. We got up and pedaled as fast as we could looking over our shoulders all the way home. We stashed our bikes in the garage as if they were evidence, and kept the secret between us until school started in the fall. Feeling invincible, we bragged about the tennis balls in the Temple to our classmates. Our crime, never exposed to adults-in-charge, fell into my ever-increasing life-bucket labeled “what I got away with.”

 

Heaven or Hell on Suicide Hill

Heaven or Hell on Suicide Hill

Willmette, Illinois 1950sth-4

The only non-Catholics I knew as a child were our babysitters. I always felt sorry for them knowing they were headed straight to hell when they died. In 1956 we rented a four bedroom tudor built into the cliff on Lake Michigan in Wilmette, Illinois, having moved from a month-long stay in a downtown Chicago hotel where we landed after our eviction from Clayton, Missouri. To the east, the view of the lake was obscured by an over-propagated evergreen garden leading a quarter mile down to a rusty wire gate that opened to the beach. My mother hired seventeen-year old twins to watch my sisters and me on the beach so she’d not have to dress for the day and be our lifeguard. And those twins came with boyfriends—who had boats. The teenagers taught me to waterski and by the end of the summer I had my feet sloshing around in the rubber boots of a slalom, skiing far out into the lake, so unmoored at the edge of the world that I often forgot to let go of the tow rope when we we came back to shore for the drop-off. None of them were Catholic and I silently mourned for their souls, asking God why He’d be sending them to hell when they obviously didn’t deserve it. After all, they had shown me where heaven is.

Sitting at the foot of my parents bed one day, I saw a television commercial for the opening of Old Orchard Shopping Center in the next town over.

“Where’s Skokie?” I asked my mother.

“That’s where all the Jews live,” she answered.

At 10 years old, I didn’t know there were Jews alive in the world. I wanted to ask my mother how Jews were living near us and not in Jerusalem where they lived at the time of Jesus. She detested answering my questions and would have accused me of stupidity, a criticism I already couldn’t stand, so I sat back and wondered if Skokie was, in fact, hell.

When winter arrived in Wilmette I could hardly contain myself. The only thing separating me from the sledding hill next door was a mammoth pile of snow huddled around evergreen growth and a chain link fence next to our house. All the girls and all the boys, all ages and all sizes came to slide down Suicide Hill. Firemen hosed it at least once a day turning soft snow into cold hard ice. Traditional sleds, too dangerous for the slippery terrain were cast off—piled up in a Flexible Flyer junkyard off to the side at the top of the mountain. Flat cardboard slabs were the most valuable commodity. I shredded straight down on the cardboard, sitting down at first, then up on my feet. Eventually we, the first snowboarders, traded our cardboard for our boots and slid downhill on our feet.

Girls and boys had equal status on Suicide Hill. There were no rules, no lifeguards, no snowguards no unofficial guards. We all raced down the slope expecting no prize, bumping each other off into snowpiles like soccer balls, soaring like heavenly rockets.  Winter stuck in our noses, but our fevered bodies rollicked in unfastened coats flapping in the wind. Medics and parents came to bandage limbs and scrapes. Ambulances carted broken bones off to Evanston Hospital. Exhaust smoke obscured our vision of cars double parked on Michigan Street where parents yelled Let’s Go!

And when the stars came out we went to No Man’s Land for hot chocolate where I eyed my non-competing competitors. We belonged together, heaven or hell.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Come to My Place

When friends from out of town ask to visit, they know they’ll be sleeping on a pull-out couch. No one seems to mind. But in the summertime, when I inform them I have no air conditioning and no screens, few believe me. The original in-the-wall air conditioner in my 1959 condo conked out in 2006. Replacing it would require ripping up and rewiringth-1 the wall and I’ve never had the inclination to do so. Neither can I bring myself to replace the broken dishwasher or stove.

Hot spells can be oppressive, even claustrophobic. When heat envelops me, I sweat, swell up, get dizzy. At times I feel like I’m going to faint. The failure of my body to adjust disrupts my circadian rhythm and agitates my sleep cycle. To cool off, I sleep with my windows open for the nighttime breeze from Lake Michigan which means on weekends I hear 2:00 am passersby mixing it up from the bars down the street and cars and motorcycles gunning it on my corner. North Lake Shore Drive makes an “S” curve at Oak Street Beach right outside my building and the occasional emergency siren wakes me as it hones in on late night crashes.

Summer sleep can be exasperating. I rise with the sun at dawn because my blinds are open all the time to catch the changing light and moving clouds. Oh, there are some — I’ve run out of wall space, so I hang paintings and dangle sculptures from drapery rods in front of partially closed blinds.

When I was about 10 years old, I occasionally slept outside in the summer on a porch with no screens. Mosquitoes didn’t bother me there. But when I slept inside, the bloodsuckers buzzed my ears until they found a juicy spot to prick my skin. I figured this was because mosquitoes come inside through the screens and can’t get out. I vowed to get rid of all the screens as soon as I had control over my own surroundings. And so I did. th-3Some visitors are afraid of the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus so they spray gobs of poisonous DEET all over themselves. I’m as afraid of West Nile as I am of getting hit by a bus. Bugs fly in. Bugs fly out. Mosquitoes, moths, flies, bees, wasps — they come in, take a look around and go out.

An occasional sparrow or pigeon may fly in too, but they find their way out once Ozzy the dog wakes up and gets wind of them. City life with all the windows open, nature buzzing around, birds chirping, cars honking, buses burping, lake breezes, the sound of rain on the trees – all of it fills me with joie de vivre. I wouldn’t live any other way.

So, if you’re nostalgic for life before air conditioning, come to my place. You’ll be cooled and calmed by slow-whirring fans and iced lemonade.

 

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung

Ancestral Tree Worship and Carl Jung
A crow caws in the gingko tree on the corner. The rising sun shines through the outdoor tree branches. Their shadows dapple my bedroom walls.

I wake early to catch the glory of each day’s wall art, to meditate with the trees in their seasons. Outside, Ozzy the dog and I stop long enough under the gingko tree to allow its fanning leaves to breathe a fresh day into our early morning walk.

th-1My favorite place is anywhere there are trees.

I love them for all the usual reasons: pretty, green, shade. The deciding factor on my condo purchase 15 years ago was the swaying branches outside the wall-to-wall windows. My home is on the 3rd floor of a 20-story high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan. When I first saw the place, the three ash trees in the parkway had reached a height equal to the 4th floor.

It was like living in a treehouse.th-3

Last year the City of Chicago’s Forestry crews euthanized my treehouse. The ashes were slowly killing themselves by feeding Emerald Ash Borers, those exotic hungry beetles from Asia. I mourn my ash trees. I thought they were immortal.

My mother, Agnes, taught me the pragmatism of trees. Stacy was born 11 years after me, and Agnes insisted I walk my baby sister around on sunny days. Her constant reminder stays with me, “Be sure you stop under the trees so the baby can see the shadows swaying.”

“Women should always have babies in the beginning of summer,” Agnes often said, “in case they are colicky, they will be soothed by leaves swaying in the trees.” She muttered “idiot” under her breath anytime another mother announced the birth of a baby in any month other than early summer.

And indeed, three of her four babies were born in May, June and July. She pretended she planned it that way.

My one and only baby, Joe, was born in May. His 1st summer was spent on his back under the trees outside in a baby carriage. Inside, he spent his time in a crib under a window of trees, syncopating his first gurgles with the sound of leaves rubbing together in the breeze.

Agnes was right about nature’s tranquilizer for infants, but she never claimed it worked for adults. She wouldn’t have been caught dead contributing such unsophisticated, sappy remedies to adult conversations. Her tranquilizers were beer and scotch and later, valium. She spent some of the last years of her life demented from these potions and gazing at the trees in verdant Vermont.604909-44011-10

Trees soothe me anywhere, in any season. Joe absorbs tree balm while minding his wooded property. Carl Jung tells us Agnes simply passed on the inheritance – the collective unconscious of Irish tree worship that supposes tree fairies live in high branches watching over us. My mother’s life was rooted in addiction that mimicked a life-sucking aphid. Yet, she uttered words that gave me and my son our love for trees, a priceless, ancient, tranquilizing inheritance.