Aug 4, 2023 - News

Galveston Beach fecal matter — how bad is it actually?

Illustration of a poop emoji drawn in the sand.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

If you're headed to the beach, you may want to read this first.

Driving the news: A recent study by Environment Texas found that almost every Texas beach tested positive for unsafe levels of fecal bacteria in 2022.

What they found: Out of 61 beaches tested, 55 had unsafe levels on at least one testing day. Fecal contamination comes from urban runoff, sewage overflows and manure from industrial livestock production.

  • Roughly half of U.S. beaches tested had potentially unsafe contamination levels in 2022.

Zoom in: Four beaches near Houston were among the most potentially unsafe: Sylvan Beach Park in La Porte, Texas City Dike, Galveston's Seawall Boulevard at 25th Street, and Clara St. near Crystal Beach.

State of play: Fecal contamination near Galveston is not new. But in the hot summer months, bacteria proliferate and we see higher levels, according to Stacey Rose, associate professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine.

  • "One could speculate that with our higher temperatures we've been having, it's possible that we're seeing a little bit of an uptick," she adds.

Threat level: Swimming in contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illness like nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea and, sometimes, headaches, fevers and infections on open wounds, Rose tells Axios. It can take one to two days for symptoms to arise.

  • Each year, there are an estimated 57 million cases of illness in the U.S. resulting from swimming in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds, per the study.
  • People who are young or old or who have compromised immune systems are most at risk.

Of note: Gastrointestinal illness from the beach can happen if someone ingests contaminated water by mouth or by nose, so staying by the sand is perfectly OK.

What they're saying: "I think the reality is that people often still go to the beach, even if by the state's report, they deem it unsafe," Rose tells Axios.

  • "For the general population — although maybe in an ideal world, we would all stay out of the water when the levels are unsafe — I think the reality is that many people still go, and so who really, really needs to stay away, are the people who are very young or very old or have compromised immune system."

The intrigue: Some Texas beaches, like those on South Padre Island, are among the cleanest in the country, Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, tells Texas Standard.

Plus: Galveston water also has Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that can cause very severe skin and soft tissue infections, and sometimes even bloodstream infections in those who have underlying health issues, per Rose.

The bottom line: Check the Texas Beach Watch website to see the current levels of bacteria along the coast.

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