Below are some commonly asked questions about beaches and how we at Health Services are ensuring the safety of our bathing waters.
- Why does the Department of Health Services monitor beaches?
- What does the monitoring program entail?
- How often is testing done?
- What are beach samples tested for?
- Where do these organisms come from?
- How is it determined if a beach should be closed or opened?
- When are advisories issued?
- How can I find out if it’s safe to swim at my beach?
- Can I get sick from swimming at a beach that has been closed?
- What precautions can I take to avoid getting sick from swimming?
- If my beach is closed or under an advisory, can I still go to the beach?
- What is the BEACH Act?
- What was required by the BEACH Act?
- How did the BEACH Act affect Suffolk County?
- Did the BEACH Act significantly change the way Suffolk monitors its beaches?
- How has the BEACH Act improved Suffolk County’s beach monitoring program?
- What are floatable wash-ups?
- Where do floatables come from?
- How does this material end up on Suffolk County beaches?
- What impacts do floatable wash-ups have?
- Do floatable wash-ups contain medical waste?
- What should I do if I find a syringe on the beach?
- What is being done to prevent floatable wash-ups?
- Where can I get more information on floatable wash-ups?
- What is aquatic dermatitis?
- What is swimmers itch?
- What are symptoms of swimmers itch?
- How is swimmers itch treated?
- What is sea-bathers eruption?
- What are the symptoms of sea-bathers eruption?
- Are the jellyfish found in Suffolk County waters hazardous?
- How do I identify a stinging jellyfish?
- How should I treat a jellyfish sting?
- Where can I get more information on aquatic dermatitis?
- Who can I contact to report an occurrence of aquatic dermatitis?
Why does the Department of Health Services monitor beaches?
The primary purpose for monitoring beaches in Suffolk County is to protect the health of bathers. While the majority of our beaches are pollution free and provide a safe and healthy recreational environment for the public, some are subject to influences that can adversely affect water quality and potentially expose bathers to contaminants. For the most part these influences include stormwater runoff and resident populations of waterfowl. In certain areas effects from boats, residential septic systems, sewage treatment plants, and limited tidal flushing may also be factors.
In an effort to protect public health in areas that are impacted by periodic contamination, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (SCDHS) Office of Ecology conducts a comprehensive bathing beach water quality monitoring program from May through September.
What does the monitoring program entail?
The beach monitoring program involves the regular collection of samples at the more than 190 beaches in the county, and the assessment of sample results in the context of appropriate state and federal standards. Samples are collected by Office of Ecology staff, and are analyzed by the Department’s state and nationally accredited Public & Environmental Health Laboratory.
How often is testing done?
Water quality monitoring at beaches in Suffolk County is conducted using a tiered, risk-based approach, with more frequent testing conducted at beaches that have historically demonstrated periods of poor water quality are potentially at risk because of their proximity to pollution sources (e.g., streams, creeks, or stormwater outfalls), or are located on poorly flushed embayments, lakes or ponds. Sampling at these beaches is typically performed at least 1-2 times weekly, with lower risk beaches (such as those on the Atlantic Ocean) sampled on a less frequent basis. Additional sampling is performed whenever water quality criteria are exceeded, or in response to events that may adversely impact water quality, (e.g., heavy rainfall, pollutant discharges, or floatable wash-ups).
What are beach samples tested for?
To evaluate beach water quality, levels of "indicator organisms" are used as an estimate of fecal contamination. Indicator organisms are microbes that are found in the intestinal tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals, and although harmless, when detected may indicate the presence of fecal contamination and potential disease causing organisms. In accordance with recommendations from the USEPA, and with requirements of the New York State Sanitary Code, Suffolk County uses Enterococci as an indicator organism for marine beaches and E.coli as an indicator organism for freshwater beaches.
Where do these organisms come from?
Both Enterococci and E.coli bacteria can be introduced to recreational waters from a variety of sources, including stormwater runoff, resident waterfowl populations, failing or poorly operating septic systems, sewage spills, boats and marinas, floatable debris, and from bathers themselves.
At marine and coastal beaches in Suffolk County, stormwater runoff is the predominant source of bacteria-laden water. Stormwater runoff becomes contaminated with bacteria as it flows across roadways, yards, parking lots and other lands. This polluted stormwater travels through storm drains into local waterways that ultimately impact area bathing beaches. The effects of the runoff on water quality are site specific, and are influenced by a number of factors, including the type of land use, area topography, and the degree of tidal flushing. A number of beaches on the north shore are located within harbors and semi-enclosed embayments where surface runoff and its effect on water quality are exacerbated by the surrounding hilly landscape and limited tidal flushing. On the south shore mainland, many beaches are located adjacent to streams and canals that drain the upland watershed, and are directly affected by contaminated stormwater during rain events.
At freshwater lake beaches, resident waterfowl and other wildlife are principal sources of bacterial contaminants, although at lakes located in more densely developed areas, inputs from stormwater runoff and area septic systems may also be significant.
How is it determined if a beach should be closed or opened?
Beach closure/re-opening assessments are conducted on a daily basis as new sampling results are received. Criteria regarding acceptable levels of Enterococci and E.coli recommended by the EPA and adopted by the New York State Health Department in 2004, form the basis of closure/re-opening decisions. In addition to levels of these indicator organisms, factors also considered in closure decisions include historic water quality data, the knowledge of potential sources of contamination in the beach watershed, past criteria exceedances, current and pending weather conditions, area flushing characteristics, and other recent sample results.
When are advisories issued?
Under certain conditions, such as during or in anticipation of unusually heavy rainfall, or in response to events or situations that can pose a risk to public health, advisories recommending against bathing and other water contact are issued. In these cases, sampling of the affected beaches is initiated as soon as possible to determine whether the advisory can be lifted or if the beach is to be closed until subsequent sampling deems the water quality acceptable.
How can I find out if it’s safe to swim at my beach?
When a beach closure or advisory is issued or rescinded, beach personnel are immediately notified, the County’s interactive Beach Closure and Advisory Map updated, and press release issued through the Office of the Commissioner of the Department of Health Services. Additionally, a telephone Beach Hotline message (631-852-5822) is routinely updated to reflect any changes in beach status.
Can I get sick from swimming at a beach that has been closed?
The indicator organisms being monitored at beaches (Enterococci and E.coli) are common in the environment but are themselves relatively harmless. Because they’re associated with fecal contamination however, high numbers of these organisms are an indication of the potential presence of disease-causing pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and parasites). Exposure to pathogen contaminated water can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and fever. Illnesses of the upper respiratory tract, and minor skin, eye, ear, nose and throat infections have also been associated with pathogen exposures. Individuals with compromised immune systems, the elderly, and children, the latter because of their level of activity and opportunities for ingestion of water, are most vulnerable to these illnesses.
If you experience any of these symptoms after bathing, you should contact your physician as soon as possible for advice. Additionally, so that we can take measures to investigate possible causes and prevent others from potentially becoming ill, please document your experience using the Injury/Illness Complaint Form available for downloading on the Forms & Documents page. When completed, please either return it to the address indicated at the bottom of the form, or send it as a fax to (631) 852-5812.
What precautions can I take to avoid getting sick from swimming?
Since stormwater runoff is a principal mechanism by which contaminants are introduced to many of Suffolk County’s beaches, particularly those located in poorly flushed embayments and harbors, avoid swimming in these locations for at least 24, and preferably 48 hours after a heavy rainfall. Locations that are frequented by large numbers of waterfowl, or where evidence of bird and animal feces is apparent along the shoreline, should also be avoided.
If my beach is closed or under an advisory, can I still go to the beach?
Yes, unless the local beach manager/operator decides otherwise. Beach closures and advisories from the Department of Health Services only affect activities that involve water contact.
Additional Information on Beaches
New York State Department of Health Website
USEPA Beaches Website
Center for Disease Control (CDC) Healthy Swimming Website
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The BEACH Act
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) was passed in 2000 as an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, in an effort to improve water quality testing at coastal beaches and to better inform the public of water quality problems.
What was required by the BEACH Act?
The BEACH Act required beach regulators to develop a formal plan that addresses procedures used to assess beach water quality and to notify the public in cases where water quality criteria were exceeded. Each plan was to include details pertaining to beach locations, sample collection and analysis procedures, an assessment of the risk associated with swimming at the beach, and procedures for issuing advisories and closures. The Act also required the adoption of new or revised water quality criteria that utilized Enterococci as a pathogen indicator for marine waters and either Escherichia coli (E. coli) or Enterococci as an indicator for freshwaters.
How did the BEACH Act affect Suffolk County?
To accomplish its goals, the BEACH Act authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award grants to states and localities to assist in the development of their beach monitoring programs. As required by the legislation, and to be eligible for funding, Suffolk County developed a Bathing Beach Monitoring and Notification Program Workplan that describes procedures used to collect and analyze beach samples, assess water quality in the context of acceptable criteria, and to inform the public when advisories or closures are issued and rescinded. As recommended by the BEACH Act, and as adopted by the New York State Sanitary Code for beaches (Subpart 6-2) in June 2004, Suffolk County now uses Enterococci as a pathogen indicator for marine waters and Escherichia coli (E. coli) as an indicator for freshwaters.
Did the BEACH Act significantly change the way Suffolk monitors its beaches?
Yes. Under BEACH Act guidelines, rather than being sampled equally, the frequency with which beaches are monitored should depend on the relative risk associated with their use. Accordingly, a risk assessment has been conducted at all Suffolk County beaches and each facility classified into one of three levels (Tiers 1-3) with Tier 1 being the highest risk level. Factors considered in the assessment included pollution threats (outfalls, discharges, runoff, waterfowl, boats, etc.), beach location, historical monitoring data, community input, and beach use.
As a result of this assessment, Tier 1 beaches are monitored most frequently, with at least 1-2 samples collected weekly. At Tier 2 beaches, at least one weekly sample and at least five samples in a 30-day period are collected. Sampling at Tier I and Tier 2 beaches extends from approximately May 15th through September 15th. Tier 3 beaches, predominantly located on the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, are sampled less frequently. Historical water quality monitoring has demonstrated that fecal bacteria contamination is not typically an issue at Level 3 beaches, despite generally high bather density, undoubtedly due to the greater degree of tidal circulation and flushing.
How has the BEACH Act improved Suffolk County’s beach monitoring program?
In addition to facilitating the development of a monitoring and notification plan, BEACH Act grant funding has enabled the Department’s Office of Ecology to significantly increase the number of beaches monitored and the frequency of sampling. As a result, the total number of samples collected has increased from a total of 444 samples from 71 beaches in 2002, to over 4,000 samples from 190 beaches in 2013.
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What are floatable wash-ups?
Strandings of floatable marine debris on Suffolk County shorelines, particularly on south shore ocean beaches in the western portion of the county, have been an occasional occurrence for many years. Floatables consist of a variety of materials that float on or just below the water surface, including numerous plastics (bottles, cups, bags, caps, etc.), pieces of Styrofoam, cigarette filters, paper, aluminum foil, wood, and tar balls. Medically related items such as syringes generally make up a very small percentage of floatables and may, in fact, have upland sources or are left by beach goers.
Where do floatables come from?
Studies have shown that the majority of floatable material that impacts Suffolk's beaches has its origin in the New York Metropolitan area through combined sewer overflows (CSOs), storm drains, and solid waste handling/transfer facilities. At Long Island Sound and other north shore beaches, CSOs from cities across the sound may also be sources of marine debris. Other sources include trash from ships, recreational boaters, fishermen, street litter, and beach users themselves.
In urban areas, combined sewers collect storm water runoff from area streets, in addition to sanitary sewage, and transport it to wastewater treatment plants. During rainfall events however, the increased volume of water in the combined sewer system can overwhelm the capacity of treatment plants. To prevent this from occurring, the combined sewers are designed to overflow into adjacent rivers and harbors after a relatively small amount of rainfall. This discharge introduces both untreated human waste and street debris into area waterways, and represents a major source of floatables washing-up on beaches.
How does this material end up on Suffolk County beaches?
The transport of floatable materials to our beaches depends on the magnitude and timing of rainfall events, the speed, direction, and constancy of prevailing winds, and tidal currents. During the summer, when southwest winds are the norm in this area, floatables leaving New York Harbor on an outgoing tide have been shown to strand on Long Island's south shore beaches. The extent of the problem generally diminishes with distance from the harbor.
What impacts do floatable wash-ups have?
Floatable wash-ups have an obvious aesthetic impact in addition to potentially causing the closure of bathing beaches due to safety and health concerns. During the wash-ups of 1987-88, many miles of beaches along Long Island and New Jersey were closed to bathing, costing the regional tourist economies many millions of dollars in lost revenues. Debris such as pilings and wooden timbers from bulkheads can also present a significant hazard to navigation, and plastic items are hazardous to marine life.
Do floatable wash-ups contain medical waste?
Possibly. However, items identified as medical waste actually represent a small percentage of floatable debris and may not be medical in nature or use. Of the medical items that are typically found, insulin-type syringes are the main component. Please keep in mind, insulin syringes are commonly used by non-medical professionals (e.g. home user) and are not regulated as medical waste. These items may have washed ashore with other household wastes or are simply left there by beach patrons. If a wash-up contains actual medical waste (e.g. vials of blood, blood soaked bandages, culture dishes, etc.) please notify park or beach personnel so they can call the local police.
What should I do if I find a syringe on the beach?
Any syringes found should be handled cautiously, taking care to avoid getting stuck by the needle, and disposed of properly. This can be done by using some type of mechanical device to place the needle into a wide-mouth rigid container with a tight screw lid, such as an empty liquid laundry detergent bottle that you have clearly labeled. However, it is generally recommended that rather than handle the syringe yourself, you notify park or beach personnel of the its location so they can have trained staff retrieve the item.
What is being done to prevent floatable wash-ups?
Since the much-publicized wash-ups of 1987-88, various measures undertaken by federal, state and local governments have significantly reduced the frequency and extent of floatable wash-ups on Suffolk County beaches. The USEPA and the US Coast Guard regularly conduct air and sea patrols of New York Harbor to look for evidence of floatable debris. Additionally, the US Army Corp of Engineers and New York City collect floatable debris from the harbor and its tributaries using specially designed skimmer vessels. Locally, as part of the National Beach Cleanup Program, volunteers from high schools and scout programs annually conduct beach cleanup days where they remove debris from various beach shorelines.
What precautions should I take when cleaning a beach of floatable debris?
Wear gloves and closed-toe shoes and treat debris as typical solid waste. Recycle whenever possible. Wear adequate clothing and sun block to protect yourself from the sun.
Where can I get more information on floatable wash-ups?
For more information on floatable debris wash-ups, see the following links:
Long Island Sound Study (LISS) Floatable Debris Factsheet
USEPA Marine Debris Abatement Website
NOAA Marine Debris Program Website
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What is aquatic dermatitis?
Aquatic dermatitis is a skin manifestation, such as a rash or eruption, contracted by bathing in surface waters. A variety of marine and freshwater organisms can be involved, including larval forms of parasitic flatworms, sea anemone or other coelenterate larvae, larval forms of crabs, and jellyfish. The most common conditions reported in Suffolk County waters include “swimmers itch”, “sea-bathers eruption” (often referred to as “sea-lice”), and jellyfish envenomations (stings).
What is swimmers itch?
Swimmers itch is a dermatitis that develops on exposed areas of the skin after contact with waters containing cercaria (larval forms) of avian schistosomes (parasitic flatworms). The rash that develops is an immune response caused by penetration of the skin by the cercaria. Waterfowl are the usual hosts of these schistosomes, with humans accidentally infected. Typically, adult worms live in the blood of their avian hosts (waterfowl) and produce eggs that are passed in the feces. After the eggs hatch, the larvae infest an intermediate molluscan host which in marine systems is usually the mud snail Nassarius obsoletus. The cercaria develop in the mud snails and are released into the water when certain environmental conditions (that are poorly understood) exist. Any person in the water when the cercaria are present may inadvertently come into contact with them, and develop swimmers itch. In Suffolk County, the majority of swimmers itch complaints are associated with marine waters, although the condition has also been reported in freshwater environments throughout New York State.
What are symptoms of swimmers itch?
Symptoms include an initial itchy or tingling sensation that usually subsides quickly, leaving the infected individual with tiny red spots at the sites of penetration. After a number of hours, intense itching may develop and the red spots enlarge to form pimple-like bumps (papules). As with most allergens, repeated exposure to the cercaria usually results in increased sensitivity.
How is swimmers itch treated?
If you think you may have contracted swimmers itch (or any other aquatic dermatitis), it is recommended that you seek a physician's advice for treatment. Treatment is symptomatic and generally includes the use of topical anti-itch and antihistamine medications. Antimicrobial drugs may be used to treat secondary infections brought on by repeated scratching. The rash and itching usually disappear within a week of infection, depending on the degree of exposure and the individual’s sensitivity.
Additional Information on Swimmers Itch
New York State Dep't. of Health Swimmer's Itch Fact Sheet
CDC Cercarial Dermatitis Fact Sheet
What is sea-bathers eruption?
Sea-bathers eruption is a dermatitis that typically appears on covered areas of the skin (under bathing suits, shirts, and long hair), rather than on exposed areas as with swimmers itch, and is usually associated with bathing in coastal waters. Episodes reported in Long Island waters are believed to be caused by the larval form of the sea anemone (Edwardsiella lineatam). A similar condition that occurs regularly off the coast of Florida is caused by the larval form of the thimble jellyfish (Linuche unquiculata), and is locally referred to as sea-lice. In either case, the dermatitis results when the tiny larval forms (the size of a pin head) are trapped underneath bathing suits or in the hair of the bather. Each larvae is equipped with a number of nematocysts (stinging cells), that can be triggered by simple mechanical pressure or by osmotic changes that occur with evaporation or when rinsing off with freshwater.
What are the symptoms of sea-bathers eruption?
The dermatitis that results from the nematocyst sting appears within a matter of hours, and can be intensely pruritic (itchy). As with swimmers itch, the rash usually subsides within a week, but can vary depending on its severity and the individual’s sensitivity. Treatment of sea-bathers eruption is the same as with swimmers itch. If you think you may have contracted sea-bathers eruption (or any other aquatic dermatitis), it is recommended that you seek a physician's advice for treatment.
Additional Information on Sea-Bathers Eruption
New England Journal of Medicine Website
Are the jellyfish found in Suffolk County waters hazardous?
Jellyfish stings (envenomations) are another potential hazard associated with bathing in coastal waters. The Lions Mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) is responsible for most stings in Suffolk County waters, although the common Moon Jelly (Aurelia aurita) is reported in the literature as also having a sting.
How do I identify a stinging jellyfish?
The Lions Mane jellyfish ranges from pink (in juveniles) to purplish in color, with its bell varying in diameter from a few inches to over a foot. Its tentacles, containing numerous nematocysts (stinging cells), trail a number of feet below the bell. The Moon Jelly is bluish-white in color, and is typically identified by its gonads that are arranged in a four-leaf clover pattern when viewed through the top of the bell. They have numerous but short tentacles that have the appearance of a fringe around the bell.
How should I treat a jellyfish sting?
Treatment of jellyfish stings should proceed as follows:
- Wash the area with seawater or saline solution to prevent further activation of any remaining nematocysts. Do not apply freshwater, as the change in osmotic pressure can cause the nematocysts to fire.
- Apply vinegar or rubbing alcohol to deactivate the remaining nematocysts.
- Remove any visible tentacles with tweezers.
- Apply shaving cream to the affected area and remove any remaining nematocysts by scraping with a tongue depressor.
- To relieve pain, analgesics and local anesthetics can be used. Antihistamines are used to relieve itching.
- In cases of severe stings, a physician should be contacted.
Additional Information about Jelly Fish
Cnidaria Envenomations (Medscape)
Jellyfish Information (eMedicineHealth)
Who can I contact to report an occurrence of aquatic dermatitis?
If you think you may have contracted a form of aquatic dermatitis, it is recommended that you first seek a physician's advice for treatment. To report an incident to the Department of Health Services, send us an email message or call the Office of Ecology at (631) 852-5760.
So that we can track the occurrence and public impact of these ailments, please also fill out the Injury/Illness Report Form found on the Forms & Documents page. When completed, please either return it to the address indicated at the bottom of the form, or send it as a fax to (631) 852-5812.
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