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Bacteria May Close Proposed Open-Water Swim Park Before It Ever Opens

31 May, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Why Event Owners Should Keep Athletes, Families Informed of All Water Tests When Planning Open-Water Swimming Events

The Charles River would like to be considered as an open-water swim park, but biology isn’t on the side of organizers. Tests of the water show frequent blooms of a dangerous bacteria that can cause skin rashes, vomiting and even neurological problems and liver damage, according to an article in the Boston Herald.

And while the drama may be playing out in New England, it’s a warning to planners everywhere as they head into the season of triathlons, open water swims and paddle sports events.

The 80-mile river that winds through Eastern Massachusetts is supported by the Charles River Conservancy, a local nonprofit. That group has been exploring the idea of using the venue as a public swim park, with egress off the dock of the North Point Park in Cambridge, near the Museum of Science.

But, notes the Herald:

While the Environmental Protection Agency has given the Charles River good grades on cleanliness in recent years, experts say the agency focuses on E. coli bacteria levels and does not account for cyanobacteria, or “blue green algae” blooms, which have been spotted in the water during nine of the past 11 summers.”

“The threat that they potentially pose to humans and other animals is that they can actually produce toxins which can cause various acute responses in humans or in dogs,” Julie Wood, director of projects at the Charles River Watershed Association, told the Herald, “sometimes attacking our brains or our nervous systems or our livers.”

Spending a few hours in the water during a bloom could leave swimmers with nasty skin rashes and eye irritation at the very least, Wood said. The Watershed Association’s 2016 annual report, which came out in April, named cyanobacteria as “an emerging threat” and predicted it “will likely be a more common occurrence in the future.”

While the conservancy wants to increase recreational opportunities for the summer and promote use of a public area, it has a difficult task ahead, given recent news. Early last summer, a teenager died from contracting the so-called ‘brain eating amoeba’ at a whitewater rafting park in Charlotte. Hard on the heels of that came the news of the chlorine-resistant superbug known as Cryptosporidium that was  causing diarrhea, cramps, an upset stomach, vomiting and a low-grade fever among swimming pool users across the U.S. (Even worse news: crypto outbreaks have increased twofold since last year.)

As a result of these high-profile cases, getting approval to swim in a body of water with a pre-existing contamination may be an uphill battle.

What does it mean to event planners? Constant vigilance is a must. As athletes move into the season of swimming and water sports, keeping water tested will help allay concerns. Sports event planners with open-water events, or any events where a risk might be found are advised to work with independent professional testing companies that can test water samples and provide alerts regarding any possible pathogens.

Planners may also wish to consult with an event insurance company to plan for any additional coverage that may be necessary.

Last summer, Sports Destination Management contributing writer Lorena Hatfield, marketing manager with K&K Insurance Groups, which provides coverage for sports events, said that planners should ascertain first, that the coverage needed is available. K&K, for example, she noted, “does not offer coverage for water parks, but we do have programs with water risks such as camps and campgrounds. K&K does offer coverage for this type of exposure under our transmissible pathogens coverage. If a claim were to be brought against an organization that had purchased this coverage, they would be insured. It’s important to know that this is not standard coverage offered in the general marketplace.”

While conservancy representatives say the section of the Charles that would be used for swimming would be tested on a daily basis, and that swimmers would not be permitted in the water on days when high levels of cyanobacteria are in bloom, health officials say it isn’t enough, claiming the bacteria can be present even when the algae is not visible.

During the summer of 2012, Cyanobacteria blooms closed two ponds in the Boston area to swimming — Newton’s Crystal Lake and North Andover’s Stevens Pond – for an extended period. And last September, the lower portion of the Charles River turned green when bacteria grew out of control, leading the state Department of Public Health to issue public health advisories against coming in contact with the water.

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