The big stink about E. coli - fecal bacteria - in the waters of Clifton Fourth Beach in Cape Town is casting doubt on the safety of beaches in the Cape Peninsula.
As throngs of people flock to the shores to spend some time in the sun and sea, Professor Edda Weimann, a medical doctor and public health specialist of the University of Cape Town, told Health24 that real-time monitoring of water quality is crucial.
"There have been several E. coli cases in the past months in the Cape that cannot and should not be ignored."
"Most of the beaches around the Cape Peninsula are not yet sufficiently monitored," she said.
Weimann published a study last year that found an elevated E. coli count at Clifton Fourth Beach, which has Blue Flag status - an international label for beaches with excellent safety and cleanliness.
She tested the seawater off Clifton in February and March in 2013 and said that E. coli was always present in the tested water with varying amounts.
What is E. coli or Escherichia coli?
E. coli is a germ found in the intestines of humans and animals and can cause infectious diseases, explained Weimann. It is a well established marker for wastewater pollution and used worldwide.
She added that foam and yellowish colouring of sand is associated with highly elevated E. coli counts.
The City of Cape Town in a statement last week dismissed cause for alarm, saying the study by Weimann was outdated.
Mayoral committee member for health, Benedicta Van Minnen reiterated this to Health24 on Friday. "Cape Town’s bathing spots are safe for swimming. ... The study referred to was conducted nearly two years ago, so the information is out of date."
No reported E.coli concerns
She also confirmed that she was not aware of any concerns reported to the City relating to E. coli.
"If problems arise, as they do in beaches around the world, we will act immediately – as we have done in the past," said Van Minnen.
"One cannot state that a beach is safe when no daily monitoring is provided, especially in the light of wastewater pollution and river contaminations. Due to currents and wind, water quality might change rapidly," Weimann told Health24 on Friday.
"Also the Vleis are contaminated, bathing is generally forbidden there, even sailing was prohibited over some weeks."
Weimann also raised concern about the safety of the E. coli count.
"There is an ongoing debate if the cut-off level of 100/100 ml E. coli is safe, considering that we are an immune compromised population with over 5 Million people living with HIV. There are even recommendations to close a beach if the E. coli level exceeds 250/100 ml. The new Guidelines of Environmental Affairs for safe recreational use which have not been legislated yet, looks at long time periods with E. coli levels over 500/100 ml."
What can be done?
Establishing real time monitoring of water quality is important, suggested Weimann. She also called for the implementation of wastewater plants that offer biological and chemical treatment around the Cape Peninsula and South Africa because it affects all living creatures in the oceans.
Weimann noted that waste water is regularly pumped offshore and led into the ocean without biological treatment.
In her report she wrote that coastal water around the Cape Peninsula is affected by polluted rivers that flow into the ocean. Although waste water into the ocean is filtered only for particles, E.coli and all other germs, as well as chemical substances are not removed.
This is especially a concern as swimmers and surfers swallow significant amounts of water. "Adult swimmers are prone to ingest 10-100 ml seawater, while children probably ingest larger quantities of water," the report stated.
Testing the waters
The City of Cape Town assured that it tests the quality of coastal water every second week, pointing out that there are very strict testing guidelines.
It said sample sites have been established along the False Bay and Atlantic coastlines and are determined by popular bathing beaches and the vicinity of stormwater discharges and river mouths to determine the impact these have on seawater quality.
"All results are corroborated by accredited laboratories", said Van Minnen.
She said when a bathing beach is non-compliant, the City communicates this via the media and other appropriate warning messages, including signage, in the affected areas until the sea water quality is compliant again.
Van Minnen and Weimann will be having a meeting to discuss water quality concerns.
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Image: Clifton Beach, Cape Town from Shutterstock