Baton Rouge – With summer approaching, the Department of Health reminds people there are health risks inherent to swimming in natural waterways. This is in spite of improvements to water quality in many Louisiana waterways over the past several years.
According to state health officials, the presence of human and natural contaminants can result in elevated levels of unhealthy bacteria. Recent studies also show that heavy rains and high water can increase the levels of bacteria in water.
With these facts, the LDH is again advising citizens that outdoor water activities can be potentially hazardous due to these contaminants.
"For the past three summers, we have warned people to be careful when swimming or playing in our lakes, rivers and streams," said LDH Secretary David W. Hood. "This advisory is not meant to discourage people from enjoying our abundant natural resources, but to be careful and mindful of the risks involved."
Annually, LDH issues this Swim at Your Own Risk Advisory to coincide with the end of school, when more people take to the water.
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, State Health Officer, says LDH broadened its advisory two years ago to include all waterways. This expanded the health agency’s previous policy of only issuing warnings about specific waterways.
"We can never say with certainty that it is safe to swim in natural bodies of water," explained Guidry. "Contaminates can find their way into all waterways, and elevated levels of bacteria puts people at risk for contracting an illness."
Guidry said most people can swim and recreate with little concern, but there is always a slight risk of ingesting bacteria or having it enter through a cut or wound. He said this advisory is issued out of an abundance of caution.
"Both natural and man-made contaminants can be found in Louisiana’s rivers, streams, bayous and lakes. But even when the water appears to be crystal-clean it may contain microorganisms or chemicals that can cause illnesses if they enter your body," he said.
Illnesses associated with poor water quality include diarrhea, sore throats, stomach cramps or vomiting. Children, the elderly or persons with a weakened immune system are at greater risk of getting sick when swimming in waters that harbor natural and man-made contaminants.
Some microorganisms occur naturally. Others come from human and animal waste. These enter the water from sewage overflows, polluted storm water runoff, sewage treatment plant malfunctions, urban and rural runoff after it rains, boating wastes, malfunctioning individual sewage treatment systems and agricultural runoff.
Microorganisms can enter the body through the mouth, nose and ears, as well as through cuts and wounds. Therefore, swallowing the water or immersing one’s head increases the risk of illness. at provides information on polluted waters. The brochure discusses the potential health effects of polluted waters, how to reduce the risk of getting sick while swimming and how to help prevent water pollution.
The LDH guide states that waterways used for recreational purposes are never risk-free, but there are several precautions people can take to reduce their risk of illness. These precautions include:
- Do not swim near a drainage pipe or in a ditch, or near runoff or littered areas
- Do not swim in areas with warnings against swimming.
- Avoid swimming after heavy rains.
- Avoid ingesting or swallowing the water.
- Minimize immersing your head when swimming.
- Avoid swimming with an open cut or wound.
- Shower after swimming.
Hood concluded by saying, "Most importantly, all of us must be ever-mindful of our environment and do our part to protect and preserve the outdoors. These individual responsibilities include the proper disposal of waste, sewage and litter. In addition, getting involved with organizations that have shown success at improving our water quality is another way to make a difference."
DHH’s Water Safety Guide, Enjoying Louisiana’s Waters Safely, can be found on the LDH Web site,www.dhh.state.la.us. In addition, the brochure soon will be available at boat launches, bait shops, sporting goods stores and other locations.