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How to know if a beach is safe to swim at

The weather is perfect for a day at the beach, but contaminants like E. coli and harmful algae blooms can make you and your pets sick.

DEWITT, Iowa — The state of Iowa boasts nearly 90 beaches along lakes and rivers. But not all of them are safe to swim at.

According to the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC), a nonprofit focused on urgent ecological issues impacting people and the planet, 13 beaches are under advisory for the week of Aug. 4, and four exceed the state's E. coli advisory threshold.

Among those exceeding the advisory threshold is Malone Park Beach, east of DeWitt. This means that five samples of the beach's water were taken in a 30-day period, and the average number of colony-forming units of E. coli was greater than 126 per 100 milliliters of water, according to Iowa State University.

Angelisa Belden, communications director for the IEC, wrote in a blog that signage warning of contamination is poor at Iowa beaches. She visited Brushy Creek Recreation Area in Webster County, which has been under a microcystin, or harmful algae bloom, advisory for several weeks. Belden recorded what she saw on Instagram.

How do I know if a beach is safe?

The best way to know if a beach is safe is to look at the IEC's website or the Iowa Department of Natural Resource's map of beaches. The DNR's map has more detailed information, but the IEC's map is easier to read. If you need the most recent beach advisory status, you can call the DNR beach monitoring hotline at (515) 725-3434.

Illinois' Department of Public Health (DPH) has a similar beach monitoring system. You can find a map of advisories here. The nearest advisory is at Faith Bible Camp in Knox County, which is private access.

Alicia Vasto, water program director at IEC, shared tips on how to spot contaminated water.

E. coli

"With E. coli, you can't really tell by the condition of the water," Vasto told News 8. "But if you see a lot of geese or geese poop, that's an indicator there could be E. coli or other pathogens."

Children, seniors, and those with weakened immune systems are the most vulnerable to waterborne illnesses. According to the Iowa DPH, contaminated water can lead to:

  • Diarrhea
  • Skin, ear or respiratory infections
  • Bloody stool
  • In rare cases, permanent kidney damage

Algae blooms and Microcystins

Microcystins are the most common toxic group of harmful algae blooms. Vasto said there are a few visual indicators for harmful algae blooms:

  • Scum on the water
  • Paint-like consistency
  • Bright green or blue color

"Those algae blooms can produce toxins that can be really harmful to the skin, or if ingested, they can cause a lot of different symptoms," Vasto said. 

According to the CDC, direct exposure to water contaminated with microcystin can cause symptoms including:

  • Rashes
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Respiratory problems
  • Liver or kidney damage
  • Neurological problems

Vasto also warns that microcystins can remain in the water for a long time after the algae bloom goes away. Always check a beach advisory website before swimming.

For more information, visit the IEC's Iowa Water Watch page, the Iowa DNR page on beach monitoring, or the Illinois DPH's page on beach closures.

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