The water at Lake Erie beaches may be fine for swimming, but you may want to think about what's in the sand.
Gary W. Pettibone, a Buffalo State College biology professor, has been analyzing samples of the sand at Bennett Beach in Evans, where he found levels of E. coli anywhere from 10 to 100 times higher than what's considered acceptable for the lake water.
"My guess is the contaminated water goes up the beach into the sand, and the organisms will actually attach to the sand particles," Pettibone said.
E. Coli is a bacterium used as an indicator that water has been contaminated by fecal matter, often due to heavy rains and sewer overflows.
While most strains are harmless, some can cause gastrointestinal illness, including vomiting and diarrhea. High levels of E. coli can also indicate the presence of other disease-causing organisms, such as salmonella, Pettibone said.
The Erie County Health Department tests lake water daily during the peak swimming season and closes the beaches to swimmers if bacteria levels are too high.
But agencies -- here and elsewhere -- typically don't have the resources to monitor the bacteria levels of the beach sand, Pettibone said.
Pettibone, with the help of student researcher Nicole Bennett, has been testing the Bennett Beach sands for the past two summers, taking samples at varying distances and depths from the water.
Lake water, Pettibone said, is safe for swimming as long as there are fewer than 235 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters of water.
The bacteria levels Pettibone found on the beach varied from as little as 47 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters to as high as 11,000.
The Buffalo State findings are similar to other recent studies looking at high levels of E. coli in beach sands along lakes Michigan and Superior.
In those cases, researchers suggested the levels may vary depending on the coarseness of the sand.
Those researchers also indicated that test subjects got rid of the beach bacteria on their hands simply by washing.
Sand acts like a filter, so it's not a surprise that the Buffalo State researchers would find E. coli on Bennett Beach, said Erie County Health Commissioner Anthony Billittier IV.
"Frankly," Billittier said, "we have bacteria everywhere in the world. I think the question is, 'What does it mean?' I have not seen any data to suggest that E. coli in the sand puts anyone at risk."
Pettibone agreed and said the findings don't warrant beach closings. But it serves as a precaution for beachgoers, particularly to parents with young children who dig in the sand and put their hands in their mouth.
"Make sure kids wash their hands and have good hygiene after going to the beach," Pettibone said.