Government

Going swimming at a state park beach? Iowa gets tougher on toxins

Child got microcystin poisoning last summer in southwest Iowa

Iowa Department of Natural Resources water quality technician Elizabeth Heckman gathers a water sample Tuesday at Lake M
Iowa Department of Natural Resources water quality technician Elizabeth Heckman gathers a water sample Tuesday at Lake Macbride Beach in Solon. In addition to gathering water samples, Heckman also noted the number of people on the beach and in the water, the water turbidity, dissolved oxygen, water temperature and pH level. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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The Iowa Department of Natural Resources will follow stricter federal standards for toxins found in the water at public beaches, reversing a decision from last summer and winning praise from clean water advocates.

“I think it’s a wise decision,” said Mary Skopec, executive director of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory in Okoboji. “Being proactive with public health is important and in the best interest of all beachgoers.”

Iowa DNR officials said last summer they would not follow recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advising states to warn against swimming at public beaches when levels of microcystin, a toxin released by harmful algae, are more than 8 micrograms per liter of water.

The state’s standard at that time for issuing swim advisories was 20 micrograms per liter. Officials said last summer they were following World Health Organization guidelines, and that tightening the standard would triple the number of state park beach warnings to swimmers without proof the water is any safer for recreation.

“Iowa did not utilize this advisory value last season due to timing,” Iowa DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said in an email this week. “But state agencies did commit to a thorough review to determine if 8 (mg/L) microcystin would be utilized for the 2020 beach season.”

Based on a review by the agency and the Iowa Department of Public Health of the adjusted standard and new EPA studies, “the state has decided to move forward for the 2020 beach season utilizing EPA’s microcystin advisory value,” Murphy said.

The Iowa DNR does weekly water tests at 39 state park beaches from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, checking for E. coli bacteria and microcystins. E. coli is an indicator for fecal material, which can carry parasites or other pathogens that can sicken swimmers. Microcystins, generated when blue-green algae die, can cause gastroenteritis, skin irritation, liver damage and nerve damage.

If the levels are too high, technicians post swim advisories at the beaches and online. Iowa issued 79 advisories last summer, with 19 of those for microcystins. This was down from a total 111 advisories in 2018.

Although microcystin poisoning is rare, it can be serious.

In June 2019, a child was sickened by microcystin after swimming at the beach at Green Valley State Park, near Creston in southwest Iowa, the state Public Health Department confirmed. The age and gender of the child was not released, but the “suspected or confirmed case” happened the week of June 10, 2019.

Green Valley Beach had eight microcystin advisories last summer.

For this weekend, the Iowa DNR warns against swimming at Lake Macbride, near Solon, because of high levels of E. coli, which can increase because of goose droppings or other feces washing into the water. Other advisories are posted for Backbone Lake, near Strawberry Point (E. coli), Lake of Three Fires Beach in southwest Iowa (microcystins) and Prairie Rose Beach in southwest Iowa (E. coli).

Lake Macbride had its first ever microcystin warning last summer.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

 

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