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How Can Florida’s beaches pose such a danger?

July 29, 2011

When I was a kid growing up in Louisiana, a trip to Florida seemed like a vacation to paradise. With winding Cypress and alligator-filled bayous as the standard Louisiana landscape, sugary-sand beaches with white-capping waves looked like the makings of postcards and vacation posters.

In reality, some of Florida’s beaches are teeming with dangerous bacteria that are more at home in a human intestinal tract than anywhere else. Enterococcus and fecal coliform are both so prevalent on some of Florida’s beaches, including the gorgeous Gulf Island National Seashore in the Panhandle, that the state Department of Health has had to send out warnings.

Enterococcus, a bacteria found in human and animal intestinal tracts, and fecal coliform, a bacteria associated with human feces, can cause health problems, including, but not limited to, urinary tract infections; diverticulitis, an inflammation of abnormal pouches in the intestines; bacterial endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner layer of the heart; or rashes.

The state routinely monitors the water quality at beaches up and down both coasts of Florida and ranks the levels of the two bacteria as good, moderate, or poor. Beaches that have recently scored poor, for one or both of the bacteria, include not only the Gulf Island National Seashore in Oskaloosa County, but five other beaches in that county: Garniers Park, Marler Park, Lincoln Park, Rocky Bayou State Park and Phil Foster Park. Others include Gandy Boulevard and Courtney Campbell Causeway in Pinellas County; Carl Gray Park in Bay County; the Cape Coral Yacht Club test site in Lee County; Coco Plum Beach in Monroe County in the Keys; Navarre Park in Santa Rosa County; and Keaton Beach in Taylor County.

The presence of fecal coliform doesn’t necessarily mean there’s actual poop in the water, experts say. The bacteria can result from storm water runoff, agricultural lands draining into an area or even high levels of bird activity that can leave an area with higher-than-average bacteria. In the case of Oskaloosa County, officials are well aware of the problem and blame the area’s drainage.

Water experts have said that extended dry periods followed by rains often result in beaches having bacteria flushed into them.

Having visited beaches up and down our state from the Panhandle to the Keys, I can say without question the Panhandle has some of the most gorgeous beaches around. Sugar-like sand underfoot and amazing vistas looking out to the Gulf make for a great vacation spot for not only the beach-hungry Louisianans of my childhood but for life-long South Florida natives as well.

Tampa Bay and the Keys, likewise, have a beautiful lure as well.

Whatever the cause, it’s a darn shame any of these waters have dangerous bacteria that might make me sick. That, actually, does make me sick.

Kumari Kelly is a licensed massage therapist and independent journalist and can be reached at kumari_kelly@yahoo.com.

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