More than 100 swimmers and boaters celebrating the Fourth of July on a Minnesota lake have fallen ill, prompting an investigation by health officials amid several closures of nearby beaches due to high bacteria levels.
As of Wednesday morning, 116 people have complained of vomiting and/or three or more bouts of diarrhea after being in the area of Big Island on Lake Minnetonka last week, according to the Hennepin County Public Health Department.
But exactly what caused the illnesses is not yet known.
“We are continuing to investigate and are waiting on lab results,” Allison Thrash, the department’s communications manager, said in an email Thursday morning.
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Beaches across the state have had closures over health concerns in recent weeks, with three in Minneapolis and one in Chaska most recently closing after routine testing found high levels of E. coli bacteria, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
The bacteria can cause severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody) and vomiting, typically three to four days after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Debra Pilger, director of environmental management for the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, said it’s not unusual for beaches to close during the summer, though the public should take precautions by not going into rivers, lakes or ponds within 24 hours of heavy rainfall.
“All that rain is bringing in stormwater runoff off the streets and the lawns and the beaches themselves and bringing all of that kind of dirty water into the lakes. And that’s when our bacteria loads get really high,” she told the local station.
Unfortunately, Minnesota isn’t alone in seeing high levels of bacteria in waterways in recent weeks.
A quick Google search shows a number of lakes and beaches across the country have tested positive for high levels of bacteria like E. coli in recent days. These include beaches in Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin.
The bacteria elevations come after the U.S. experienced the wettest 12-month period in recorded history. It led to flooding in parts of the Midwest as high water flowed down the Missouri River and eventually into the Mississippi River, which absorbs 41% of the country’s drainage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
More recent flooding has been seen in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, which is bracing for a potential hurricane this weekend.
Susan Murcott, a wastewater engineer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, partially blames poor urban planning for the increasing deluge of pollutants into waterways.
“We have overbuilt our cities with a lot of pavement and concrete and there’s not an absorbent capacity because our soils are all covered up,” she told HuffPost. “It’s not as nature intended.”
She pointed to one solution being the use of green infrastructure, which uses vegetation, soils and other elements and practices to soak up and store water runoff, mimicking nature, according to the EPA’s website.
As for current conditions, Murcott called it a “huge” and “growing problem.”
“I think that it’s a combination of our population growth and how we’ve built the human infrastructure and that we need to counteract it with more natural approaches,” she said.
“There are several different approaches that people could take. Some people take the approach of building concrete walls like sea walls” or levees “but that’s not a good way to go about it,” she said. Instead, she recommended we take a few pointers from the Dutch, who have dealt with flooding and high waters for centuries by developing compatible infrastructure.
“They call it, ‘living with water,’” she said of their harmony.
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