Each week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) takes water samples from Iowa public park beaches. They test for dangerous bacterial contaminants and post those beaches that are unsafe for recreational swimming.
However, there are serious concerns that the standard the IDNR is using to test the water fails to adequately alert the public to the dangerous bacterial contamination. Governor Reynolds and her IDNR are putting Iowa family’s health at risk by refusing to follow the EPA health standards for Iowa recreational waters.
E. Coli and Microcystins
This is the third week we have seen Iowa beaches closed to swimming due to dangerous bacterial contamination. Last week saw five beaches closed to swimming from high levels of E. coli, and one (Lake MacBride) was closed due to dangerous levels of microcystin.
The presence of E. coli is an indicator for fecal material present in the water. The microcystin is a cyanotoxin generated by blue-green algae and is appearing earlier in the season than normal.
The increasing blue-green algae outbreaks are directly related to excess nutrients washing into Iowa’s lakes and rivers. Microcystin is potentially a serious health risk to humans and animals. It can cause gastroenteritis, skin irritation and in severe cases liver failure.
This past week, three beaches were posted as unsafe for swimming for E. coli contamination: Backbone Beach, Beed’s Lake Beach and Lake Macbride Beach. Green Valley Lake Beach was posted as microcystin was detected.
Microcystin outbreaks have resulted in entire cities shutting down their municipal water systems. In 2014, Toledo, Ohio, lost the use of their public water system for days due to microcystin contamination.
The EPA recommends beach closings for any microcystin levels exceeding 8 micrograms per liter of water. Yet, the IDNR refuses to follow that standard by only posting Iowa beaches as unsafe when microcystin levels reach 20 micrograms per liter, more than twice the EPA limit. The IDNR refuses to follow the EPA standard, claiming that the World Health Organization has a similar 20 microgram limit – they classify 20 micrograms as a “moderate risk level.”
There are several reasons IDNR should follow the more rigorous EPA standards in setting maximum microcystin levels. The risk to swimming in contaminated waters isn’t limited to skin contact. Swimmers, especially children, are very likely to ingest lake water.
The safe limit for drinking water with microcystins or E. coli is much lower than any swimming standards set by the IDNR. In Toledo, Ohio, for example, the city warned residents to not drink their water, use it in cooking, wash their dishes with it, or brush their teeth with it, but said showering in the water was okay.
Erring on the side of safety for Iowa’s children should be a priority for the IDNR.
Following the standard of 20 micrograms of microcystin may give beach goers a false sense of security. Had the IDNR followed the lower threshold of 8 micrograms of microcystin, an additional 11 beaches would have been posted as unsafe for swimming in 2018.
Don’t the Iowa families that took their children to those 11 beaches last year deserve to know they might have been putting their family’s health at risk?
Turning a Blind Eye
Using the EPA’s 8 microgram standard, this week Lake Darling should have been posted since it had a microcystin level of 11.8 micrograms per liter. The IDNR didn’t warn the public about the danger posed by Lake Darling’s microcystin outbreak since it fell below the IDNR’s arbitrary limit. Iowa families taking their children to Lake Darling this week probably have no idea they may be putting their family’s health at risk.
This isn’t the first time the IDNR has attempted to lower safety standards for swimming beaches. In 2017, the IDNR proposed rule changes that would have weakened the testing criteria and reporting for E. coli levels in our lakes. The uproar from the public, over environmental and health concerns, forced the IDNR to back down on those changes.
Reynolds’ administration is attempting to minimize Iowa’s growing water quality crisis by attempting to cover up the health risks to the public. Both E. coli and microcystin levels are increasing as Iowa waters becomes more contaminated with animal waste and excess nutrients.
Rather than putting money and efforts into meaningful water cleanup, Governor Reynolds is attempting to hide the problem from the public.
Iowans must ask Governor Reynolds and her new IDNR Director how they justify keeping the public in the dark to potential health risks resulting from Iowa’s hazardous water quality.
By Rick Smith