Tag Archives: contamination

Swimming in Contaminated Water

Bowles Reservoir

Swimmers ready to race in Bowles Reservoir, Lakewood, CO.

Swimming, boating, fishing, rafting, wading, and all the fun stuff we do in the water when the temperature warms. I enjoy open water swimming as part of training for and competing in triathlons. Swimming laps in the pool is a good workout, but it doesn’t give me that sense of freedom and adventure that comes from open water swimming. I see the world through my environmental-tinted eyes. Therefore, I think about the water quality and what contaminants may be in the water. “Will I be swimming in contaminated water?”

There are several ways for contaminants to pollute your favorite swimming hole. The risk of a wider variety of contamination is greater in an urban or suburban water body. Runoff is the easiest way to introduce pollutants. This includes automotive pollutants (oil, grease, fuels) from roads, pesticides and herbicides getting washed away, fertilizers from over-applying to lawns, bacteria, fecal matter (E coli), and good old trash. If the water passes through an industrial area then the risk of toxic pollutants from chemicals and heavy metals increases. A body of water can become lifeless from the just the runoff of over-applying lawn fertilizer. Your green lawn killed the bay!

Sloan’s Lake on the west side of Denver is what got me thinking more about this. I live in the Denver metro-area. Sloan’s Lake has a history of poor water quality; specifically low oxygen probably due to too much goose poop. I was supposed to swim in this lake in 2013 as part of the Denver Triathlon. I was researching the water quality in the weeks leading up to the race and had concerns. The race ended up being cancelled due to the heavy rain and flooding in Colorado in September 2013. That elevated my concerns even more and I haven’t ever swam in this lake.

Contaminated Ralston Creek

According to “How’s My Waterway”, this beautiful creek is contaminated with E. Coli, arsenic, mercury, and has low oxygen.

Heavy rains are a significant problem for open water swimmers. Heavy rains increase storm water runoff, which increase the collection of contaminants. The first 24-48 hours are the worst. Think about what can be picked up during a flood. For starters, the typical stormwater contaminants that I mentioned, plus additional things such as trash, sewage, more trash, medical wastes, lots of fecal matter, and even more trash. The September 2013 flooding was so bad it was busting and tipping fuel and oil storage tanks.

Often during these extreme flood events water treatment plants can shutdown or overflow. Fortunately there are resources for you to find out if your water is contaminated. If you’re headed to a major beach, check their website for warnings and swim advisories. EPA’ s How’s My Waterway is a good resource to look up the sampling results of any waterway. They haven’t all been sampled and they can be outdated. Many of the creeks and lakes I looked up were last sampled in 2010. It is still a good resource to get an understanding of where you’re swimming.

You can also look around and upstream to get an idea of what might be in the water. If you see a lot of farmland, then you might be swimming in herbicides and fertilizers. If it’s urban, then road pollutants are likely. If it’s suburban, then fertilizer is a big one. If the water passed through an industrial area upstream, toxic chemicals and dissolved heavy metals are a risk. Look for life in the water. Swimming with the fishes can be uncomfortable, but if there’s fish in the water that means it’s somewhat healthy. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the naturally occurring microbiological pollutants that can make you sick.

Open water swimming is fun and adventurous. Make sure to swim in the right place and time. Dilution is not the solution to pollution.

Below is an informative 8 minute video about stormwater pollution in Puget Sound. It is produced by Earth Fix, a media project of Oregon Public Broadcasting. It will change the way you view what happens to your rainwater.

Contamination, Where Are You?

Part of the MIlltown Reservoir Superfund Site, Missoula, MT

Part of the Milltown Reservoir Superfund Site, Missoula, MT. Not all Superfund sites are green ooze and rusty drums.

When I’m teaching environmental compliance and hazard management courses, one of the issues I try to convey is that environmental compliance isn’t just for tree huggers and protecting the environment. It’s more about protecting yourself from toxic exposures. First from direct exposure while working with and around hazardous substances and second from exposure to contaminated air, water, and land. When the conversation turns to their own safety or the contamination of their favorite fishing hole, people’s interest picks up. Then they want to know, “How do I find out where all the contamination is located?” So contamination, where are you?

You would be surprised and probably a bit scared by how much contamination we are surrounded by. The park where you walk your dog, the river you cross every day, the nursery where you buy your flowers, the building down the street from where you work, or even the land you’re building a house. They’re not all Superfund sites, but they’re out there.

Fortunately much of this information is provided to the public by the EPA and your state’s environmental agency. The EPA is happy to tell you about it with a “Where You Live” link on its homepage.

Here is a good starting list of links where you can find out if there are contaminated streams, air, or Superfund sites in your life.

1. EPA’s National Priorities List map, which is a list of national priorities among the known contaminated sites. You probably know these by their more common name – Superfund sites.

2. EPA’s Enforcement Annual Results map. This isn’t necessarily all contaminated sites, but a map showing the location of all the concluded enforcement actions from the last fiscal year. Basically, where the EPA found something wrong and action was taken. You’d be surprised, like I was, to find a local business on this map.

3. How about that river, creek or lake where you fish or swim? The EPA has another good website, http://watersgeo.epa.gov/mywaterway/. Enter your location and it will bring up all the surrounding waterways and if they are contaminated.

4. AirNow.gov and EPA’s AirNow mobile app will give you the current air quality at your location.

5. Consumption warnings can be found on your state’s environmental protection or fish and wildlife website. Some people are shocked to learn that states may recommend limiting how much fish or waterfowl you eat and to practice catch and release, but these warnings and postings have been around for over a decade.

Housing development near a former nuclear weapons facility in beautiful Arvada, CO.

Housing development near a former nuclear weapons Superfund site in beautiful Arvada, CO.

Here’s an example from my neck of the Colorado Front Range. There are high-end and sustainable homes being built in the far northwest Denver suburbs. It’s a beautiful location right up along the base of the mountains. Unfortunately it’s also the former site of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility. That’s right, plutonium. It’s a lot different from cleaning up an oil spill or TCE contaminated soil. As much as I tend to trust environmental scientist who claim the area is clean, it’s a scary thought to be spending a lot of money and a portion of your life living on a former radioactive site.

Even more unusual is that the main development, Candelas, is a sustainable, green living development. What if you just bought a new, sustainably built house surrounded by beautiful Colorado open space, then learned a new highway is being built nearby (which is also happening), and then also learned that the area used to be a nuclear weapons production facility. Time to reconsider that half a million dollars you’re about to spend. I’ve seen enough science (both good and bad) influenced by politics and money that a history of plutonium is enough for me to set aside any science, use common sense, and not to live there.

My final disconcerting point, which drives some of my students wild, is that there is so much contamination that is either not known about or is known about and is not being cleaned up due to limited money, time, and effort. It’s quite amusing to watch a fiscally conservative person get fired up about contamination in their neighborhood and then become conflicted when I tell them the EPA and/or state knows about it but doesn’t have the money to clean it up. Emotion, science, and politics. It can be a “toxic” combination.