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Madison public health officials now rapid testing for bacteria at beaches

Wisconsin State Journal - 6/8/2024

Jun. 8—Public health officials this summer are incorporating rapid testing into their plan to alert people to toxins such as blue-green algae at Madison-area beaches.

The rapid testing system detects bacteria in water samples within two to four hours compared with the traditional one that provides results within 18 hours, according to Public Health Madison and Dane County.

The health department is also piloting a system that allows officials to preemptively close beaches that typically have higher levels of bacteria after heavy rains.

"This will allow us to be proactive rather than waiting for results," Jennifer Lavender-Braun, PHMDC microbiologist, said in a statement.

Health department spokeswoman Morgan Finke said, based on department data, there's no evidence of an increase in toxins such as blue-green algae at Madison-area beaches over the past half decade, which would lead to an increase in closures. But testing results have prompted beach closures at times during the summer each season.

"Under the right conditions, harmful bacteria and toxins like blue-green algae and E. coli, can grow quickly in the shallow waters along local beaches," she said.

If unsafe levels of bacteria are detected, the beach is closed for swimming and staff retest the water every weekday until levels return to normal.

On Friday, Lake Mendota County Park beach was closed because of elevated levels of bacteria after recent rains. Two beaches were closed because of construction, and two hadn't opened yet.

Residents can monitor Madison-area beach closures at publichealthmdc.com. They can also report blue-green algae blooms or swimming-related illnesses to the Wisconsin Harmful Algal Blooms Program by calling 608-266-4821 or emailing lab@publichealthmdc.com.

Swim safely with these tips

The health department said water safety conditions at county beaches can change quickly, so people should not swim in water that looks like pea soup, green or blue paint or if a scum layer of puffy blobs is floating on the surface — even if closure signs aren't posted. Some blue-green algae may even look reddish-purple or brown.

People should also avoid swimming after heavy rain because that can cause bacteria levels in the water to rise. Boating, kayaking or skiing in water with blue-green algae can be harmful too, because you can breathe in the cyanobacteria's toxins.

Always look at the water before letting pets swim or wade, and rinse them off as soon as possible after they are in the water.

And if you have been in water with blue-green algae, rinse off well and monitor yourself for symptoms of illness, the health department recommends.

How to reduce the frequency of blooms

Limit the use of lawn fertilizers and don't use fertilizers that contain phosphate, according to the health department.

Perform routine maintenance of your septic system, and keep leaves and grass clippings away from storm drains. You can also plant native plants along shorelines to keep the water clean.

"Beach days in Wisconsin are limited, so by getting these more real-time results, we're able to reopen beaches faster following a closure to help families enjoy swimming safely," Lavender-Braun said.

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(c)2024 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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