In order to prevent waterborne diseases like viral meningitis or parasitic diarrhea, the health departments—District Health Department #2, District Health Department #4, and Health Department of Northwest Michigan, will post public health advisories and closures at the beaches when lake waters are unsafe. If a health department closes a beach, samples of lake water are tested daily until it is safe for swimming and can be reopened.
“With the laboratory located within our district and centrally located in northern Michigan, we can get test results very quickly, instead of waiting a day or two to get results back from the State or private laboratory,” said Scott Kendzierski, Director of Environmental Health for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, who is responsible for the lab operations. “Fast turn around can help our agency respond quickly to poor water quality and can significantly shorten the time a beach is closed.”
Affiliated with the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, the Northern Michigan Regional Laboratory is testing water samples on a weekly basis collected from 67 public beaches in a nine-county region consisting of Alpena, Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Emmet, Montmorency, Oscoda, Otsego, and Presque Isle counties. Results from water testing of these public beaches, as well as others across the state, are posted at http://www.deq.state.mi.us/beach/public.
According to Kendzierski, waterborne diseases were once a serious threat to public health. "Modern sewage handling practices and polio vaccinations have eliminated many of the most serious causes of waterborne disease, but risks are still there. E. coli contamination in lakes is typically caused by animal droppings, especially waterfowl. Accidents, weather, temperature, and water conditions can also interfere with lakes’ natural clearing of disease-causing organisms,” he said.
Kendzierski said the laboratory is staffed by experienced medical technologists who understand the testing process and the medical and disease potential that can be associated with fecal contamination.
"E. coli is normally present in the lower gut and feces of humans, other mammals, and birds that are not strictly seed/fruit-eaters, but it is not normally persistent in the environment,” added Jacob Harmon, Laboratory Supervisor. “In the lab E. coli grows quickly and is easy to test for, so we get information about whether there is fecal contamination and the risk of associated viruses, parasites, and bacteria. We are very fortunate to live in an area that has excellent sanitation, but we need to be vigilant and keep up on available technology to make sure there aren't preventable problems."
The Health Department of Northwest Michigan is mandated by the Michigan Public Health Code to promote wellness, prevent disease, provide quality healthcare, address health problems of vulnerable populations, and protect the environment for the residents and visitors of Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties. If you have concerns about local water quality, report them to your local health department office. For additional information about beach monitoring results, visit http://www.deq.state.mi.us/beach/public.