Bacteria at Our Beaches
Why does Dr. Kate Connors worry about beach water quality in Nocturne, Opus 1: Sea Foam? First of all, she is the mother of a precocious three-year-old daughter and she loves her dearly. Which parent among us wouldn't pay attention to our child's surroundings, especially in new places like on vacation at the beach? Our first concern would be strangers, followed by activity safety, which includes monitoring how close our child gets to the water, or how far into the water our child goes, or how deep of water our child swims in. Then we think of sharks! (Sorry. But that topic does lurk in the back of most parents' minds, whether they care to admit it or not.) More realistically, in terms of probability of contact, we scan the water's surface for the bobbling, rounded shape of jellyfish. But how many of us also see this standard beach scene through the microscopic and macroscopic eyes of a scientist?
Kate Connors is a scientist, a medical researcher studying the effects of bacteria on the human body. Specifically, she studies Bacillus nocturne, a normally passive, estuary bacteria that floats harmlessly in rivers, bays and oceans. Why does she study this bacteria? Because the organization that hired her, the Institute for Public Policy and Safety, knows that someone has genetically altered Bacillus nocturne. Kate sees danger where we see children laughing and tumbling in the surf.
Is there a problem with our beach water quality in the United States? Yes, in some places. A few years ago, I found a sign posted by DNREC, Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, at an entrance to an inland bay beach. It read:
“The waters of the Inland Bays may contain organisms that could be harmful to your health. Swimming could result in an increased risk of rashes, infections or gastrointestinal distress, especially during and after rainfall. For your health and safety, please swim at beaches with lifeguards where the water quality is tested weekly. For information on beach water quality or to report illnesses resulting from contact with these waters, please call 1-800-922-WAVE or visit www.dnrec.state.de.us.”
Have you seen water quality warning signs near any of the beaches you've visited? What did they say?