Tag Archives: pollution

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.

Seeing the World Through Environmental Tinted Eyes

air pollution

Pollution from a sugar factory. Yes, a sugar factory

Seeing through the world through the eyes of an environmental professional is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it gives me an appreciate for the natural world and allows me to see and understand the improvements in our environment. The curse is that I can’t miss the environmental pollutants and potential damage in nearly everything.

Control of air quality, management and releases of hazardous chemicals, and other important environmental areas have seen great improvements. But the amount of chemicals in our daily life seems to be increasing and our exposure to them is often unknown. I can’t stop thinking about constant exposure to environmental pollutants, both mine and the people I see being exposed. At work, it’s the exposure to hazardous materials for both me and my coworkers. At home, it’s the countless man-made chemicals in our food and products.

I see coworkers who are exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis and I try to educate them on the effects of exposure. I gas up my car, get a quick whiff of the fuel vapors, and immediately think about what that exposure is doing to me and everyone else. I’ll drive past a construction site and think about the pollutants in the dust being kicked up. I’ll see someone applying a pesticide without any PPE and wonder about their exposure. Although our overall air quality control has improved, I see pollution from refineries and factories and worry about spending too much time around them.

air pollution rocky mountains

Air pollution over the Rocky Mountains

As a recreational triathlete, albeit a slow one, I think about the environment where I’m training. I enjoy open water swimming, but wonder what pollutants are in the water? It could be a beautiful lake and maybe the only nasty thing in it is too much goose poop, but a lake in an urban setting could be filled with stormwater runoff chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides, oils and greases. You probably shouldn’t swim in an urban lake the day after a big storm. This fall I ran a half-marathon through downtown Denver and was thankful that the race was on a Sunday morning. I couldn’t imagine running 13.1 miles through the city on a busy weekday and question people who do or worse, run along a busy road during rush hour.

In my house, I’ll wear my shoes inside and wonder what was on the bottom of them that I just carried through (pesticides, grease from the street). Should I be using this household cleaner? Am I being exposed to the fire-retardant chemicals in my couch or the pesticides I applied to get rid of the ants? Most likely, yes. I bought Halloween makeup to apply a mustache for my son’s costume, Einstein. I read the ingredients, thought better of it and he went as Lil Einstein – no mustache.

One area where some progress is being made to reduce our exposure to small amounts of toxic, man-made chemicals is in our food. Although agribusiness is bigger than ever, finding options for healthier, naturally grown food is becoming more widespread.

Paracelsus said, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” I enjoy seeing the world through my environmental-tinted eyes and use that understanding to balance being environmentally conscious, being realistic, and taking calculated risks. Ignorance is not bliss, so I wear my PPE.

pest control spraying

What is this guy being exposed to?