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Swimming facilities have become standard features in hotels, motels, apartment complexes and subdivisions, as well as many parks and recreation areas. However, swimming can be hazardous due to the numerous diseases that may be transmitted by contaminated water and the dangers associated with diving accidents and falls on wet surfaces. In order to minimize these risks, the Illinois Department of Public Health requires the state's 3,500 swimming facilities to meet water quality and safety standards, including engineering design standards that apply to pools, spas, water supplies, bather preparation areas, and water treatment systems. The Department enforces these rules and regulations through plan approvals and inspections. The Department also administers a voluntary certification program for swimming facility operators.
To prevent illnesses associated with swimming at Illinois beaches, each licensed beach is inspected annually to determine that required safety features are in place and there are no sources of possible pollution such as sewage discharges. These inspections are done either by the Illinois Department of Public Health or a local health department, or, in Chicago, by the Chicago Park District. The Department also requires that each of the 335 licensed public beaches be sampled every two weeks to determine that bacterial levels in the water are within limits established in the Swimming Facility Code (77 Ill. Admin. Code 820). The maximum E. coli level allowed – 235 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (cfu/100mL) – is based on guidelines established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for recreational waters.
Two sample bottles are mailed to each licensed beach operator every two weeks, beginning in May and concluding in September, for sampling the shallow and deep areas of the beach. If both of the sample results exceed 235 cfu per 100 mL, the operator is ordered to immediately close the beach. If one of the sample results exceeds the 235 level, the facility is required to submit two additional samples. If either of those re-sample results exceeds 235 cfu/100mL, the beach is ordered to close. Beaches are allowed to reopen when both samples collected on the same day have less than 235 cfu/100mL.
The Department's regulations also contain a maximum standard for fecal coliform bacteria (500 cfu per 100 mL); the same testing frequency and closing procedures apply. Beaches located in Lake and McHenry counties are sampled by staff from the local health departments there and those agencies have chosen to sample for fecal coliform levels. Both E. coli and fecal coliform serve as good indicators of bacterial contamination because they live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. E. coli is a subgroup of the fecal coliform bacteria.
The water quality at many Illinois beaches can be influenced by heavy rainfall. If a recent heavy rainfall makes the water look cloudy, the beach may not be safe even if the most recent sample results were satisfactory. Use common sense and good judgment anytime you swim in natural waters. If the water does not look inviting, don't swim.
Since most of the swimming-related disease outbreaks in Illinois have been associated with fecal discharges from swimmers, the Department requires that all children who are not toilet trained wear tight-fitting rubber or plastic pants. Swimmers are advised not to drink the beach water.