Ask Before You Swim

<i> Neumann is a Forest Hills, N.Y., pediatrician who writes on travel-related matters</i>

Beaches are being closed in many parts of the world as an increasingly common source of illnesses, particularly diarrhea and hepatitis A.

Acknowledgment of pollution by health officials is the first step toward improving conditions. In some parts of the world, along the Mediterranean coast, for example, beaches are already cleaner than several years ago.

Cleaning up the Mediterranean was a challenge when you consider that it is almost a landlocked sea with a narrow outlet at the Strait of Gibraltar. Also, it has little tidal activity, a large population, heavy industry along its shores and 1 million tourists a year along the northern coast. Added to these problems are the many countries and varying interests in the area.

In 1975 the United Nations launched a multibillion-dollar clean-up campaign, the “Mediterranean Action Plan.” At that time 65% of the beaches were considered “clean and safe.” However, conditions were deteriorating. Now 80% of the beaches are clean and safe.


Soviet Problem, Too

Other parts of the world are just coming to grips with beach pollution. This year the Soviet Union announced that “a progressive deterioration of the sanitary situation is being observed in all of the country’s resort areas.” As a result, beaches are closed on the Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific Ocean coasts.

And in Rio de Janeiro, authorities closed some world-famous beaches because of breaks in antiquated pipes that still take raw sewage out to sea.

Serious beach pollution problems have recently been acknowledged by West Germany and Poland. Beach closings in those countries are expected next year.


Some tips for using beaches:

Swimming in areas where nearby beaches are closed may be safer than swimming where no beaches are closed. Obviously, the water is being monitored.

If water looks dirty, chances are that it is . If water is crystal clear and you can easily see the bottom, chances are it is safe.

But in the tropics, never swim near the outlets of rivers. Clear water may contain small freshwater snails that carry organisms that cause schistosomiasis, a serious tropical disease that affects various parts of the body. The snails may survive for short periods in salt water.

Locals May Be Immune

If residents use a beach, it doesn’t mean the water is safe. They could be immune to the diseases, but you may not be.

Ask knowledgeable residents about the beach and water conditions. If you don’t know the local language, you won’t be able to read the signs--and they may be warnings.

As a tourist you should be concerned about sewage pollution. Industrial wastes and heavy metals, for example, while hardly good for you, are less of a concern.


At the beach, lie on a chaise longue or at least on a blanket rather than on the sand.

Generally, the farther away from population centers and industrial plants, the safer the water. This is especially true on Caribbean islands. On most islands sewage is pumped directly into the sea. Thus, some of the cleanest beaches may be found in remote areas.

Minimize the amount of water you swallow when swimming.

When possible, shower after swimming. And use soap. When the shower is on the beach, make sure that you are not showering in the same water you were swimming in.