How safe is your beach?

Crocodiles and sharks aren’t the only possible dangers awaiting an unsuspecting swimmer. In the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of outbreaks from illness associated from swimming in the world’s oceans, lakes, rivers, swimming pools and hot tubs.

Recreational water illnesses can cause a variety of symptoms including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic and wound infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The main culprits are germs such as Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium), Giardia, Shigella, Salmonellosis, Norovirus and E-Coli.

While diarrhea is the most commonly reported symptom, sometimes an infection can be more serious and in extreme cases, even fatal. In 1999, an eight-year-old girl died after being exposed to E. coli when she and her family unknowingly waded through untreated sewage at the seaside resort of Dawlish Warren, in South Devon, England.

And although rare, cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid fever are among the more serious water-borne maladies found at beaches around te world.

While North America and Europe have become more vigilant in monitoring water quality in recent years, the safety and cleanliness of beaches abroad can be somewhat of a mystery. Some don’t examine water quality at all, and others don’t publicize what they find, leaving many travellers to fend for themselves.

So what’s a traveller to do? Fortunately, there have been efforts to monitor the world’s beaches in a more systematic way. The Blue Flag Campaign launched by the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe in 1985 promotes water quality, safety, and environmental education. Beaches that meet the organization’s rigorous criteria for cleanliness are awarded a blue banner, which lets visitors know that the water is safe for swimming. Currently, more than 3,100 beaches and marinas in 34 countries are flying blue flags and the number is growing. For a list of participating beaches, visit BlueFlag.org.

In countries where reports on water quality aren’t readily available, local dive and surf shops can be useful sources of information, experts say. Travellers are also advised to avoid swimming in densely populated areas for at least a day after heavy rains when sewage overflows are more likely. Beaches near rivers that flow into the sea can also be risky.

Here’s an overview at water monitoring procedures at some popular foreign beach destinations as reported by Condé Nast Traveler on Concierge.com.

Brazil
Each of the country’s 17 coastal states has its own water-monitoring program, with some beaches tested daily and others weekly. In Rio, popular spots such as Copacabana and Ipanema are closed once a month on average. Information on water quality at Rio’s beaches can be found, in Portuguese only, at destinolitoral.com/balneabilidade.asp. For in formation on Bahia’s beaches, go to seia.ba.gov.br/aguas/praia_fatia/qualidade_praias.asp.

Caribbean/Atlantic
11 islands and island groups were surveyed including Anguilla, Aruba, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, Nevis, St. Barts, St. Lucia, St. Martin, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Turks and Caicos, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. All but Aruba (whose program was pending approval at the time of the survey) reported that they monitored swimming waters at least quarterly, with most testing on a weekly basis. None of the islands has ever closed a beach due to pollution. Information on water quality on U.S. Virgin Island beaches can be found at dpnr.gov.vi/dep/notices.htm.

Costa Rica
Although unrelated to the international Blue Flag program, the Costa Rican government operates its own Blue Flag program which certifies beaches according to standards of water cleanliness and conservation. The government, which monitors recreational water quality three times a year for fecal coliforms, reported that high levels of bacteria are most common at beaches near river deltas—including Puntarenas, Roble, and Doña Ana—after heavy rains. Go to guiascostarica.com/bazul for beach ratings, in Spanish only.

Guatemala
The Ministry of Health reported that for the past five years, it has tested the water at the eight most popular tourist spots every week. Water quality is generally excellent, although beaches are sometimes closed due to sewage contamination following storms.

Mexico
A government agency monitors water quality at more than 200 beaches at least monthly and sometimes as frequently as three times per month. Results are available, in Spanish only, at portal.semarnat.gob.mx. In a recent round of tests, five beaches — all in the state of Veracruz –were closed because they presented health risks.