Waste from humans, geese plagues beach that draws thousands.
By Dan Sheehan
Of The Morning Call
Beltzville Lake was closed to swimmers again the other day, but the Three Bathing Beauties ó the self-bestowed title of Rose Marie Serina, Betty Lou Barlosky and Dolores Serfas ó lay waterside anyway, bronzing in the fierce August sun and wetting their toes in water deemed hazardous to human health.
It didn’t look hazardous. It looked enticing ó clear and cool, with tiny fish darting around under the low waves kicked up by passing motorboats. But a red no-swimming sign stood in the sand, illustrated by a desperate-looking character whose expression suggested the tormented existentialist of Edvard Munch’s ”The Scream” going down for the third time.
Frustrated public health officials regard Beltzville, near Lehighton in Carbon County, as the most troublesome state park swimming area in Pennsylvania. The park is a hugely popular getaway spot, drawing 86,000 visitors in July 2004 alone, but its lake and beach are frequently fouled by hygienically challenged humans and a superabundance of geese.
Together, birds and beachgoers can generate a bacterial soup blamed for multiple beach closures and several illness outbreaks over the past couple of decades, including a 1988 incident when nearly 1,000 people fell ill with vomiting and diarrhea from a gastrointestinal bug called shigella.
Officials have been confounded in their efforts to fix the problem, because so much of the solution is out of their control and in the hands of the people most victimized by contamination: the beachgoers.
”We know we’ve seen dirty diapers on the shore, and we know people shouldn’t do that,” said Andre Weltman, a public health physician with the state Health Department. ”It’s no different from requiring restaurant workers to wash hands after they use the restroom. All of these things are hard to get people to do reliably.”
Beltzville has been closed to swimmers twice this summer. The July 18-20 closure followed a shigellosis outbreak that sickened more than a dozen people, all of whom had visited on the July 4 holiday weekend.
Ensuing tests turned up excessive levels of potentially sickening coliform bacteria, leading to a second closure on Monday.
The beach reopened Thursday, but stepped-up water testing ó daily instead of twice-weekly ó will continue.
It is not uncommon for swimming areas around the state to be closed because of high bacteria levels. The lake at Tobyhanna State Park in Monroe County was closed last week after tests showed levels three times the state limit.
But aside from Beltzville, only one other swimming area in Pennsylvania’s system of 117 state parks has been linked to illness in the past 15 years. The beach at York County’s Gifford Pinchot Lake was closed in 1991 after shigellosis struck.
”Beltzville stands out,” said Weltman, an employee of the division of infectious disease epidemiology who investigates outbreaks statewide. ”In the last 10 years or so, Beltzville stands out as the one we’re watching for. Ö Certainly in terms of having these large-scale outbreaks it’s dramatic.”
A problem with popularity
The chronic problems haven’t dampened the phenomenal popularity of the lake, which can draw several thousand visitors on a summer weekend.
That popularity is part of the problem. Shigellosis and other illnesses tend to spread when large groups of people are concentrated in shallow, slow-moving water.
Some lake visitors are more inclined to blame the problems on Beltzville’s winged denizens.
”It’s the geese,” insisted Serina, the weekday sunbather, an affable silver-haired woman who lives in Lansford and has been making the half-hour trip to the beach since Beltzville Lake was created in 1972 by the damming of Pohopoco Creek in a flood-control project.
That’s partly true. The 525-foot stretch of coarse sand is often littered with goose droppings. Serina said she came out to the beach one morning and counted at least 133 Canada geese floating in the water and waddling on shore.
Goose waste certainly affects bacteria levels in the water, Weltman said. That can trigger closures. But in outbreaks of shigellosis or other illnesses, human waste is the culprit.
Consider: Of the thousands of weekend visitors, many are small children, who can be as casual as the geese in deciding when and where to relieve themselves. And even a small amount of fecal matter containing infectious pathogens can cause an outbreak.