With record heat already hitting Louisiana, people are looking for ways to cool off.  For many, that will involve swimming and water sports at one of the state’s beaches.

Since Memorial Day and summer vacations are prime times for lazy days at the lake, the Department of Health reminds people that microscopic germs are found in all natural waterways, and these germs can pose health risks.

According to Dr. Fred Cerise, secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals, germs find their way into water from both human and natural contaminants.

“We know people will be venturing into our state’s waterways more and more in the coming months, so we advise them to be careful and exercise health precautions,” Cerise said. “We certainly do not mean to discourage people from enjoying water activities, but we want them to understand the potential risks involved.”

The Department issues a “Swim at Your Own Risk” Advisory each year to coincide with the end of the school year and the beginning of summer.

Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer, says LDH broadened its advisory four years ago to include all waterways. This expanded the health agency’s previous policy of only issuing warnings about specific waterways.

“Most people can swim and enjoy the water without any problems or concerns,” Dr. Guidry explained. “But, contaminates can find their way into all waterways, so there is always a slight level of risk for infections.”

In addition to the expanded advisories, LDH conducts a beach water quality monitoring program for coastal waters in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Quality, the Louisiana Office of State Parks, Cameron Parish Police Jury, The Town of Grand Isle and Lafourche Parish Police Jury. The monitoring program began last year at Cypremort, Fontainebleau and Grand Isle state parks and this year has expanded to include Fourchon, Holly Beach, Hackberry, Rutherford, Martin, Dung, Little Florida, Gulf Breeze, Grand Isle and Constance beaches.

With this program, water samples will be taken weekly from beach sites and analyzed. Signs posted at the beaches will be changed each week to reflect the water quality status at that particular area.

Illnesses associated with poor water quality include diarrhea, sore throat, stomach cramps or vomiting. Children, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems have a 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.

In 2001, LDH prepared a water safety guide that 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.

DHH’s Water Safety Guide, Enjoying Louisiana’s Waters Safely, can be found on the LDH Web site at www.dhh.louisiana.gov. To check the status of locations being monitored through the new beach water quality monitoring program, visit the link on the Office of Public Health Web site at http://www.oph.dhh.state.la.us/sanitarianservices/beachmonitor.