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Swim in the Hudson River—But Swim Smart

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Riverkeeper’s perspective on the recent study that found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Hudson River

The Hudson is “teeming” with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, screamed more than one headline recently. One warned of “high-levels” of pollution, and another sniffed: “Just a reminder not to swim in the Hudson River.”

Some journalists suggest that this news is enough to make you turn your back on the river. But that isn’t the message the public should take from the new headline-grabbing study of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Hudson. Conducted by Queens College and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in collaboration with Riverkeeper, the study was published in the Journal of Water and Health.

(Also read a Q&A with the study’s corresponding author, Gregory O’Mullan, and the authors’ description of the study and why it matters.)

To be sure, the findings are alarming precisely because they point to a real health risk. Untreated sewage—the likely origin of these antibiotic-resistant bugs—is a serious risk to those who use the Hudson River, particularly swimmers. Nationwide, millions of people are sickened from contact with contaminated recreational waters every year, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. That’s why Riverkeeper has since 2006 been answering the most common question we get from the public—“How’s the water?”—with a monitoring program that provides the best available information on where and when sewage pollutes the Hudson River.

In collaboration with the same institutions behind this new study—Lamont Doherty and Queens College—we test for a bacterium found in human and animal waste that generally isn’t itself harmful, but which, when found in elevated numbers, indicates that harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites are also likely to be present. Yes, the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is concerning, but the risk of getting an antibiotic-resistant infection from swimming in water which has fecal contamination is not new…. and that risk shouldn’t necessarily keep you out of the water.

I haven’t stopped swimming. And neither have our science partners.

Scientist Greg O'Mullan, Swimming in the Hudson River at Saugerties

Scientist Gregory O'Mullan, an author of the new study on antibiotic-resistant bacteria, swims in the Hudson River at Saugerties last week.

It is important that we arm ourselves with knowledge. To that end, our monitoring data show patterns that are useful. Ultimately we hope to rid the river of sewage pollution entirely, but we aren’t there yet. Here is the cold, hard fact—the Hudson still suffers from sewage pollution, and until that changes you need to be educated before entering the water. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop recreating. You wouldn’t avoid swimming on sunny days because some clouds, somewhere, produce lightning. You wouldn’t avoid swimming in a quiet sandy cove because some other water has treacherous rocks and currents. Neither should you avoid swimming where and when water tends to be free of pollution, just because pollution exists at other times or locations.

Until we have eliminated the discharge of untreated sewage to our recreational waters, you must consider the potential for contamination, just as you consider the potential for a thunderstorm. For example, around New York City, you’ll want to know that in dry weather, 7% of our samples have failed to meet safe-swimming guidelines–the same failure rate as the average U.S. beach. But after rain—watch out. A third of our samples failed.

If you’re in Newburgh, where the water at the public boat launch has failed to meet EPA safe-swimming guidelines in more than half of our samples, you may want to cross the river to Little Stony Point beach, where only two samples have exceeded “Beach Advisory” levels since we began testing in 2008.

We also want the monitoring data to inspire change. You should pressure local officials to take action to reduce pollution and improve infrastructure that will lead to our ultimate goal—clean water all along the Hudson River. Until we have reached that goal, we want the public to be notified when pollution fouls the water. Right now, we’re asking for your help to urge the state Department of Environmental Conservation to implement the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law. The landmark law took effect nearly three months ago, but the public is still not being alerted within four hours of a sewage discharge, as required.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t have to rely on a non-profit group like Riverkeeper to provide information so critical to public health. We should have frequent and widespread testing of recreational waters, and forecasts to help us avoid water pollution, just as we have forecasts to help us avoid air pollution. And we shouldn’t have raw sewage spewing into our water at all: we ought to invest to repair and replace aging infrastructure.

The latest headlines will, we hope, only increase public pressure to achieve these goals. In the meantime, don’t stop swimming—just swim smart.

Keep the Hudson River flowing!
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