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Exposure to human-associated chemical markers of fecal contamination and self-reported illness among swimmers at recreational beaches

June 14, 2018

Anthropogenic chemicals have been proposed as potential markers of human fecal contamination in recreational water. However, to date, there are no published studies describing their relationships with illness risks. Using a cohort of swimmers at seven U.S. beaches, we examined potential associations between the presence of chemical markers of human fecal pollution and self-reported gastrointestinal (GI) illness, diarrhea, and respiratory illness. Swimmers were surveyed about their beach activities, water exposure, and baseline symptoms on the day of their beach visit, and about any illness experienced 10–12 days later. Risk differences were estimated using model-based standardization and adjusted for the swimmer’s age, beach site, sand contact, rainfall, and water temperature. Sixty-two chemical markers were analyzed from daily water samples at freshwater and marine beaches. Of those, 20 were found consistently. With the possible exception of bisphenol A and cholesterol, no chemicals were consistently associated with increased risks of illness. These two chemicals were suggestively associated with 2% and 1% increased risks of GI illness and diarrhea in both freshwater and marine beaches. Additional research using the more sensitive analytic methods currently available for a wider suite of analytes is needed to support the use of chemical biomarkers to quantify illness risk and identify fecal pollution sources.