Coliform bacteria occur naturally in animal feces (e.g., humans, fish, and livestock), as well as stormwater runoff, soils and vegetation. By themselves, these microscopic organisms are considered harmless and often aid in digestion and vitamin synthesis in the body.
However, high numbers of coliform bacteria in the water may indicate the presence of potentially harmful microorganisms, including Salmonella, Shigella and Vibrio cholera, viruses such as infectious hepatitis, and others that may lead to outbreaks of diarrhea and gastro-urinary infections.
While there is increasing controversy about coliform as an accurate indicator of health concerns, it remains the most common gauge used to indicate whether a water body is safe for swimming. The state's saltwater beaches are sampled weekly for fecal coliform (a sub-group of total coliform, indicating human or animal fecal contamination) and enterococci (present in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals), a more reliable measure of water quality because it survives longer in water. County health departments issue health advisories or warnings based on these standards, although the link between exposure to these organisms and public health risk remains unclear.
Most sampling sites are designated as safe for swimming, although sampling is limited to public beaches. Apply common-sense guidelines in other areas. Children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems (such as those living with AIDS, organ transplant recipients, or those receiving certain types of chemotherapy) are more prone to illness if infected.
Contact your county public health department for a list of designated swimming areas and monitoring criteria. Be aware that rivers, streams and canals are more prone to pollution than larger bodies of water, like Tampa Bay, that may be safer because of dilution. Avoid swimming immediately after it rains, near stormwater outfalls or in stormwater ponds where pollutants concentrate. People with liver or kidney conditions, or open wounds or abrasions, should avoid salt water and promptly seek medical attention if exposure leads to an infection. Avoid swimming in lakes where septic tanks are present during flooding because pollution from septic drain fields may spill over.
The threat of bacterial contamination is the reason most areas of the bay are closed to shellfish harvesting, but closures are based on state presumption of contamination rather than actual monitoring. For additional information on shellfish harvesting, visit the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute at http://research.myfwc.com/.
Florida's Healthy Beaches program requires counties to monitor saltwater beaches weekly for fecal coliform (a sub-group of total coliform, indicating human or other animal fecal contamination) and enterococci (present in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals), a more reliable measure of water quality because it survives longer in water. County health departments issue health advisories or warnings based on these standards, although the link between exposure to these organisms and public health risk remains unclear. Additionally, many local governments monitor other swimming sites within their jurisdiction, although monitoring standards may vary.
Samples are collected in sterile 100 ml containers and transported on ice to a certified laboratory. The samples must be cultured on plates within 6 hours of the time they are collected. After a 24-hour incubation period, the number of colonies on the culture plate are counted and reported as the number of colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of sampled water, or CFU/100 ml.
During sample collection, environmental conditions are also observed and recorded, along with recent rainfall amounts.
The maximum allowable level, or "action-level" of fecal coliform is 400 CFU/100 mls. The action level for enterococcus is 104 CFU/100mls for a single water sample. In addition to a single sample measure, the geometric mean for enterococci is calculated using the 5 most recent test results. This will reflect the average water quality over the past month. The action level for a geometric mean is 35 CFU/100 ml, as opposed to a single sample action level of 104, signifying a trend towards higher than normal bacterial levels in the water for this particular period. If a sample meets or exceeds any of these limits, the beach must be resampled and an advisory may be posted.
The use of bacterial indicators is limited because a very small sample (100mls, about the size of a juice glass) is used to represent a very large body of water. Environmental contamination can also be very localized or patchy, especially if the source of contamination is wildlife. Poor sample results may reflect that particular sample area, but not necessary represent the water quality for the entire beach area. Conversely, waters with indicators exceeding certain levels may be considered a potential health risk but levels within acceptable ranges are not necessarily free of risk.