Beach managers test for E. coli while another germ goes undetected


While health agencies look for faster ways to detect harmful E. coli bacteria on public beaches, they overlook another germ that may cause even greater problems.

Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, is a beach threat newly recognized by research teams across the country.


Staph bacteria are not detected by current beach monitoring systems. Photo: Lester Public Library (flickr)

“This organism is tenacious, it can reoccur and it can be very difficult to get rid of,” said Marilyn Roberts, a professor at the University of Washington, who studied the bacteria on marine and freshwater beaches near Seattle. “It can cause a huge amount of destruction of tissue and in the worst case scenario it can cause death.”

The EPA doesn’t require municipalities to check beaches for staph. Instead, they test for E. coli, a bacteria usually spread through feces from farm runoff or leaky sewers. The detectors pick up on some strains of harmful bacteria but not staph.

But runoff and sewers aren’t the culprit for spreading staph. Staph usually lives on skin, which leads some scientists to believe its source is beachgoers themselves.

“We can’t identify a contaminant offsite that’s bringing it to the beach,” said Lisa Fogarty, supervisory hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Michigan Water Science Center in Lansing, Mich. “It’s probably coming from the swimmers.”

Fogarty is studying germs on Great Lakes beaches. She plans to publish the study in the fall.

Staph infections can be complicated because some strains are resistant to methicillin, an antibiotic usually reserved for last-resort hospital cases. Those strains are called MRSA — pronounced mersa — which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

“Organisms that are resistant to methicillin are typically resistant to a large class of antibiotics, so treatment of MRSA is very difficult,” Fogarty said.

Fogarty has found staph on all five Lake Erie beaches she tested. One of two she examined on Lake Huron and three of six she checked on Lake Michigan also tested positive.

Almost half the beaches she tested had the potential to harbor the antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria.

She doesn’t know if anyone has contracted staph infections from Great Lakes beaches or how much bacteria are needed to pose a health risk.

Until scientists learn more about staph and the antibiotic-resistant staph, beachgoers should practice good hygiene and wash after playing in the sand, said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist and beach monitoring coordinator at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“Different types of bacteria could be present in beach sand, but we’re just now detecting them and need to know a lot more about it,” Briggs said. “For most of us when we go to the beach it isn’t a problem because we can play and then wash our hands.”

Roberts recommends people take hygiene a step further by washing toys and animals that have been on the beach, and covering up scrapes and wounds that are more vulnerable to infection.

MRSA and staph can be present anywhere there are humans, but Briggs said the beaches may have a natural disinfectant.

“The ultraviolet light from the sun is a natural killer of bacteria, so we have that going for us,” Briggs said.

But until scientists learn more about the danger and prevalence of staph and antibiotic-resistant staph infections and how to detect them, management of the potential threat is uncertain.

“There’s a lot of concern for beach managers,” Fogarty said. “But what do we do? You can’t stop people from going to the beach.”

5 thoughts on “Beach managers test for E. coli while another germ goes undetected

  1. We are having the same problem in Australia where it is occurring more and more often but many people know nothing about it. My husband who drives charter boats, contracted Staph A resulting in cellulitis – incredibly painful and swollen legs, wounds spreading up his legs – he was admitted to hospital and put on IV antibiotics for nearly a week and, once at home, remained on tablets for many weeks. Now, many months later he still remains lethargic and the legs are at times still painful. This is something that is not to be taken lightly and, if left untreated, can result in death. There should be more publicity and warnings about this problem.

  2. Unfortunately Jason, you are incorrect about beaches being cleaner now than ever before. Due to storm sewer and combined sewer overflows, this is the farthest from the truth. Every time it rains in SE Michigan, millions upon millions of untreated raw sewage is discharged into our area rivers lakes and streams, eventually the detroit river and off to the lower great lakes. Its no surprize that there is MRSA and Staph in this water, and unfortunately, these pathogens are not monitored regularly or regulated like Ecoli and fecal coliform.
    Hate to tell you, but this is anything but sensational media spin, it should be more in the public eye, and is actually mandated to be by the federal stormwater program which requires permitted MS4s to engage in both outreach and education as well as public participation. Unfortunately, despite some brilliant efforts by some local individuals and groups, it is the state program that lags behind other state programs in their administrations effectiveness of this among other aspects of the program.
    Its not all doom and gloom however, and actually the solution can also be a solution to new industry in Michigan that is sustainable. Green infrastructure, infiltration basins that capture stormwater on site, rainwater catchment systems such as those you can see here
    retrofitting of detention and retention ponds to infiltrate and/or be raingardens/native plant gardens, green roofs, no mow zone….anything that is volume capture can be instrumental in reducing the impact of CSOs. But to truely be effective, it must be implemented wide spread.
    As we redevelop detroit and the suburbs, we need to do it wisely. Updating infratructure using volume capture and all variety of green infrastructure can not only solve this problem and make it a thing of the past, its less expensive to install/replace than traditional, requires less maintenance and the maintenance is less costly, it decentralizes problems so that the entire system isn’t affected, and it can create an entirely new industry here, even becomeing a leader in the industry.
    I hope everyone will make the initiative to learn more.

  3. I do agree that we don’t need to sensationalize Staph, MRSA or any other health hazard that we can encounter, and sometimes the media will do so. I tend to believe that Staph and MRSA on the beaches and in the lakes and oceans is most likely due to people. These bacteria live on people’s skin, or in their upper respiratory tract, and you’ll find them where people are.

    I think it’s important to keep a level head, be informed and know that there are some simple things you can do to protect yourself, such as Roberts points out above – shower/wash when you leave the ocean or beach area.

    I’ve put some simple tips together in an infographic to help prevent Staph and MRSA while enjoying our favorite summer hang-outs:

    Be safe and informed,
    Michelle Moore
    Microbiologist and Health Researcher

  4. Really…what is next. A beach is part of the natural environment. If you keep looking hard enough you are going to find all sorts of “nasty” stuff that we are exposed to every day, every where we go. A beach is even more likely to harbor a variety of organisms due to the fact that it is a land/water transition zone. I can’t even imagine what researchers would find if they decided to study ALL the potential health threats in the soil, water, trees, grass, playground equipment and everything else say at the local park! Just because there is a renewed interest in beach research (due mainly in part to funding availability) don’t write articles that have such a typical media sensationalistic spin….it makes most people just worry for nothing. A beach is a beach, they are much cleaner than they were 20-30 years ago, and I don’t recall any articles from back then talking about people dying from staph infections they picked up at the beach.

  5. At least we don’t have sharks. Yet. A new freshwater-resistant strain of shark is coming to a lake near you.

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