Beach water bacteria: how to stay safe on Texas beaches this summer

With summer just around the corner, families are ready to get some sun at places like Crystal Beach.

CRYSTAL BEACH, Texas -- With summer just around the corner, families are ready to get some sun at places like Crystal Beach.

“Oh it’s always relaxing to come out here,” Brittany Shultz said.

Shultz, a mother of three from Cleveland, says the presence of beach water bacteria is on the back of her mind.

“It’s always the concerns of getting sick from it or getting infected by it,” Shultz said.

It’s also a concern for the Galveston County Health District.

With peak beach season on the horizon, district workers can be seen scooping up samples to test for a bacteria called enterococcus.

"Enterococcus is a bacterium that's common in rainwater runoff. It's found in the gut of mammals so typically what occurs is after periods of heavy rain, cattle waste, pet waste and some sewage overflows will get washed off the land and into rivers, and streams and eventually into larger bodies of water," Scott Packard, Director of Communications with the Galveston County Health District tells 12 News.

Packard says their department collects samples routinely along 52 beach sites in Galveston County during peak beach season.

The sample is tested for the number of colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water.

Safe levels of bacteria fall between 0 to 35 CFUs per 100 milliliters.

Medium levels of bacteria rise within the range of 35 to 104 CFUs per 100 milliliters.

A high level of bacteria is any amount above 104 CFUs per 100 milliliters.

When a sample shows a level of bacteria above that EPA standard, an advisory is issued for that particular beach site. That site is monitored daily for bacteria levels to go down, which typically takes 48 hours.

"It doesn't close the beach, it just lets people know that if you have an immune condition, liver disease, open cuts or sore, you may want to avoid that particular beach while it's under advisory," Packard said.

Warning signs are flipped to indicate if one beach site is under advisory for high levels of enterococcus bacteria. These advisories are not related to vibrio vulnificus, better known as flesh-eating bacteria.

“That bacteria is naturally present in salt and brackish water around the world. So it's something we want people to be aware of. For either one of those bacteria, an infection is extraordinarily rare," Packard said.

According to the Galveston County Health District, 100 times more people were killed in automobile accidents in 2015 compared to getting an infection from beach water in Texas.

The latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Service show in 2013, 22 people were infected by vibrio vulnificus, 16 people were infected in 2014, and 35 people were infected in 2015. Additional numbers can be found on the DSHS website.

Cases reported to the Galveston County Health District have decreased in recent years.

Nine cases were reported in 2013. In 2014, nine cases were reported.

The number of cases decreased to eight in 2015 and down to five in 2016. So far this year, no infections have been reported in Galveston County.

To put it in perspective, more than 10 million people visited Texas beaches in 2015. Less than 0.00035 percent of those people got a vibrio vulnificus infection, according to the Galveston County Health District.

For enterococcus, you can easily track which beaches have a spike by going to www.texasbeachwatch.com. The website shows bacteria levels on beaches along the Texas coast.

It’s a great resource for busy moms like Shultz.

"I think that it's an amazing resource, you never want to put your kids in danger or yourself in danger," Shultz said.

Her family and others are ready to return to the coastline.

The Galveston County Health District advises that anyone with common risk factors include diabetes, liver disease, cancer, and open cuts or sores to talk to your medical provider before swimming in any natural body of water.

The Galveston County Health District asks that you immediately clean any cuts and report redness or swelling to your doctor.

They say that the majority of people who get infections recover without long-term complications.

Other helpful links can be found below:

www.galvestonbeachinfo.com

www.gchd.org/beachwater

A video FAQ regarding flesh-eating bacteria can be found here.

© 2017 KBMT-TV


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