How Chicago Got a Lot Faster at Beach Water Warnings.

Chicago is the only major U.S. city to use a new method to test for bacteria at most of its beaches—and then issue same-day swimming advisories.

Millions of people in the U.S. get sick every year (often with a gastrointestinal illness) after swimming, boating, or fishing at a beach.

Authorities measure fecal bacteria—from sewage, birds, or other animals—in the water as an indicator of what other illness-causing organisms might have been released with the waste. If the levels are too high, they post a warning.

Under the usual method, labs grow bacteria from water samples, a process that takes about 24 hours to show results. So by the time high pathogen levels are evident and a beach warning goes out, “Mom is picking up the baby, washing sand out of their pants, and getting into the car,”

For the sake of public health (and good PR), other local jurisdictions and states across the country have considered switching to the day-of testing protocol—but it’s easier said than done. So far, Chicago is the only major city to use a new method for the majority of its beaches, a choice facilitated by political will, capable labs, urban density, and some good fortune.

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