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Home Fun Travel Jump on In: Is it Safe to Swim in the Chesapeake Bay?

Jump on In: Is it Safe to Swim in the Chesapeake Bay?

Families in the Chesapeake Bay area know the pleasures of getting to swim in the Chesapeake Bay and other Maryland creeks, rivers and ponds. But how can you tell if the water near the Chesapeake Bay is clean enough to swim in?

What can swimming in dirty Bay water mean for your family? Chesapeake families know first-hand that swim spots can be less than pristine.  Keonte Smith frequents Sandy Point with her son and goddaughter and describes the water as “filthy” —  but says she continues to spend time there because it is affordable, convenient and her kids don’t care.  “After swimming for a couple hours, my son’s swim trunks were completely brown and it was disgusting.  You never know what is in the water when you go,” tells Smith.  Like most, Smith never witnessed anyone testing the water and first recognized that a swim spot can turn unsafe quickly when one of her children was stung by a jellyfish.  “Ocean City is much cleaner, but it is all about convenience,” reiterates Smith.


Eric Lind has an adventurous household that enjoys playing in the stream and building dams for fun at the Wilson Owens Branch tributary.  Though Lind says the water looks clear, his curiosity led him to get involved with the Joe Bay Wetland Sanctuary and later become a master watershed steward with the Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy.  “I learned that the stream in the Wilson Owens Branch is in fair condition so it is okay for recreational use, but we need to make sure kids get hosed off and take a bath [after swimming or wading],” says Lind.  He found that pollution from storm water, pet waste, silt and nitrate are present where he swims and are harmful to our health.

Just because a beach looks clean doesn’t mean it is.  “In terms of the microbial aspect, what makes beaches not suitable for swimming is the presence of bacteria associated with waste of warm-blooded animals, whether they are humans or dogs,” says Dr. Sally Hornor, professor of biology at Anne Arundel Community College.  Professionals at the public health department are supposed to test the beaches and post results online.  “We collect water samples weekly, bring them to labs and count the indicator bacteria, which are the ones commonly associated with waste,” says Hornor.  If bacteria levels are high, the beach will be closed down.  “Since there is a higher risk of illness, we want to allow for natural flushing to get rid of the bacteria and lower the count,” says Dr. Jinlene Chan, physician in Annapolis.  Due to the tremendous amount of rainfall our area experiences, contaminants may be found in the water.  

Some children should proceed with extra caution.  “Young children are going to be the most vulnerable because they tend to drink the water and have a small body weight, which causes them to get a bigger dose [of contaminated water] than grownups,” says Hornor.   Drinking contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and cramping; the exposure can also cause ear infections.  If your child has a cut or has a compromised immune system, he can get an infection from swimming in the Bay.

If your child will be swimming in the river, be proactive.  “When you get home, you can make a mixture in a dropper bottle that is fifty percent white vinegar and fifty percent rubbing alcohol and put a drop or two in your child’s ears and swish it around,” suggests Hornor.  This will help avoid an ear infection.

Pools that are not in somebody’s backyard, such as hotels, marinas, private community pools and health clubs, are licensed and inspected by the public health department.  They look for proper staffing and cleanliness.  Minimum levels for chlorine and pH are required under the law.  In a public pool, the free chlorine level should be between 1.5 parts per million and 5 parts per million.  “If the chlorine goes down and pH goes up, the proper disinfection is not happening and germs can start to grow,” says Lucy Goszkowski, pool program manager at Anne Arundel County Department of Health.  All inspection reports are public record and available upon request, though the health department says that parents should not worry.  “We have a very good record in this county and have not had any serious disease outbreaks as far as public health in public pools,” says Goszkowski.  

“If water chemistry is not correct, we close the pool and make everyone get out of the water for fifteen to twenty minutes,” says Goszkowski.  This is to prevent gastrointestinal bugs and skin rashes.  If you do not see the pool operator testing the water hourly, recording results and making any necessary adjustments, you can file a complaint with the public health department and ask for an investigation.    

If you have a pool in your backyard, you should check your septic system to be sure it is in good shape.  “If you have a failing system and live in a critical area, you are a top priority for getting grant money to replace it,” tells Hornor.  Do not be afraid to call a pool technician to come out to your home if you are having any trouble maintaining chemistry at the appropriate level.  

Do your part to prevent water-related illnesses.  “Never swim within 48hours of heavy rainfall in the Bay or other natural bodies of water and shower as soon as possible after water exposure,” recommends Elin Jones, public information officer at Anne Arundel County Department of Health.  It is also recommended to be sure that your child does not enter the water wearing a dirty diaper.  

You can sign up on the public health department’s website for e-mails or text messages about the water.  “If there are sewage spills or other issues, you will get an automatic alert telling you to avoid the areas until they have been determined to be safe for human use again,” says Chan.  Aside from being informed, there is nothing special you can do.  “It is just about being cautious and paying attention to the advisories,” summarizes Chan.  

Spread the word about what you can do to improve the water quality.  “You should pick up after your pet because there are billions of bacteria in a single pile of dog waste,” notes Hornor.  Though outdoor recreation can be fun, it is important not to lose sight of the effect that the environment can have on our health.  Together, we can create cleaner swim spots.

By Jamie Lorber

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