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

 

At The Shore

At The Shore

Once upon a time a long time ago I got tumbled round and round and somehow knew to go limp, relax my breath, close my eyes and not wriggle toward the sky I couldn’t see. I let myself go, with, the, flow; let the tide churn my body turned-fish-turned-seashell-turned-driftwood-turned-mermaid. Sanded, winded, exhilarated and afraid I ended up splayed out on the beach—waiting for someone to acknowledge my courage in facing the swollen ocean alone and coming out alive. But they were all in their beach chairs smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, telling jokes, gossiping, hissing—the parents, the aunts, the uncles, the friends, the neighbors.

That was the summer my father taught me to swim and I made friends with the ocean.

Twenty-two years later, second-husband Ed moved me and my child Joe into flat-roofed, low-slung stucco in the tidal flatlands of Ocean Gate, New Jersey, where freshwater Toms River flowed into saltwater Barnegat Bay and made the brackish brine off our sandy backyard abundant with sealife, birdlife and shorelife. Ed, a no-good sometime-recovering alcoholic raised in the working-class Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, had spent gobs of time at the shore and had one good characteristic—he loved nature. The first summer on the bay, he taught Joe and me to fish, crab, birdwatch and seine.

In knee-deep water, Joe’s five-year old body, barely holding up a pair of trunks, stood on one side of the seining net. He gripped its wooden pole with both hands. Holding the other pole, I stretched the net six feet to the side of Joe. On the count of “One, two, three!” we dug our poles into the bottom and slowly pulled them through the sand, dragging the 220px-Seine_(PSF)slackened mesh to the shore and heaving it waterlogged onto the beach to see what lived beneath and around our sea-shored feet. We scrambled to our catch before low-flying seabirds descended to snatch up bottom-feeding young flounder; then we examined the rest of the bounty, which always contained a variation of tangled fishing line, faded lures, pieces of styrofoam, oyster shells, mussel shells, small rocks and pebbles, and once in a while a prized jellyfish, baby turtle or blue crab.

One time an osprey flew overhead scouting out what may have been his next meal. He held something flapping herkyjerky in his talons that dropped smack on the beach in front of our seining net. Screeching like seagulls we threw up our arms, jumped up and down, pushed and pulled each other screaming for Ed. Ed grabbed a stick and an old ice chest and lifted the six-foot rat snake into captivity. That snake lived in a glass tank in the kitchen for a few months eating live frogs and mice before we released it back into the seagrass.

Once upon a time a long time ago I learned to be the mother of a boy, face fear and love nature. And she loved me back.

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.

 

Conquering High Rise Nature

Conquering High Rise Nature

I threw down the Sunday Real Estate section, flew out the door and sped toward the city to catch the last minutes of the 1-3 pm Open House in a Lake Shore Drive condominium. View of Lake Michigan, one-bedroom, 900 square feet, 24-hour doorman, close to everything, dogs allowed, balcony.

Balcony? During the hour drive to downtown Chicago from temporary quarters in my son’s suburban home, I fantasized sitting on the as-yet-unseen balcony overlooking the Lake, tending my garden.

“I’ll take it,” I said to the agent as I moved across the living room of the third-floor apartment and saw old-growth trees fully dressed in their summer clothes. Outside the wall-to-wall windows a flickering in the trees revealed a red-headed house finch flitting from limb to limb. And then, there was the balcony.

Before light bulbs, blinds or a shower curtain, I bought clay pots and flowering plants for my new home. Young lime-green sweet potato vines and purple morning glories would grow up hugging each other, curling around the railings, stretching toward the sun, competing for space on the top rail, then spilling over the top, and finally hanging down in a graceful cascade of tangled color.

I laid the pots of soil on the balcony overnight to let the dirt cure before planting, leaving the door open – inviting the overnight breeze to bring on a soft sleep. In the morning I strolled into the living room to find dirt tracked all over the floor. My terrier, Usher—legs splayed out on the balcony floor, muddy nose, dirty paws—held his head high with half-closed eyes basking in the light wind. What do you suppose dogs think? Was he grateful IOzzy Gardening 5-4-12 gave him the opportunity to dig up our new backyard?

Off to Home Depot I went for another bag of soil and over-the-railing brackets to hold the pots up and away from those ancient canine instincts. I planted and watered. Perfect.

My north-facing home juts out just enough on a curve of Lake Shore Drive to have a tree-filled lake view. In fact only the trees stand between my balcony and the North Pole – no buildings, no mountain ranges, not much to break the full force of prevailing winds barreling down the Great Lakes, slamming into my building and battering the sweet potato vines and morning glories. They didn’t last the week.

For three years I tried all manner of perennials and annuals praying for wind resistance. The gardeners at Gethsemane Garden Center finally told me I was in a losing battle. Abandoning the outdoor garden, I still delighted in my tree-filled panoramic view full of IMG_1778sparrows, chickadees and one squirrel that sat on a parallel branch, squeaking and shaking his tail, tormenting the dog.

Eventually the emerald ash borer brought down most of the old trees, allowing more
light to fall on the indoor geraniums that are spread across the window sills and bloom all year. Conquering nature in a high-rise requires unwavering love of God’s creatures and a solid commitment to the game.