How do we know that Cayman’s waters are safe?

| 07/05/2019
Ask Auntie, CNS Local Life, Caymanian status

I was disturbed to read a recently published article which said high levels of faecal bacteria were found in water at public beaches in East End and North Side in October 2018. The report also said that the Department of Environmental Health (DEH) does not have the necessary staff or equipment available to regularly test Cayman’s beaches for water safety.

I have checked both the DEH and government websites and I haven’t found any press releases or information regarding this situation.

Possible causes suggested for the high levels of faecal bacteria included rainwater run-off and an influx of sargassum, but the DEH laboratory manager was quoted as saying she could not recall any swimmers ever contracting an illness due to being in the water here. However, my husband and I were snorkelling in the contaminated waters listed in the article last October. Happily, we did not get sick, but we would have appreciated being informed that we were swimming in waters that were heavily contaminated with sewage.

And please don’t forget about the Sister Islands. We also love to swim, snorkel and dive around Cayman Brac and Little Cayman and there have been recent reports of contaminated well water on Brac. So how safe are their marine beaches? Does anyone actually know? And if they do know, would they tell anybody about it?

The Cayman Islands are famous for their beautiful beaches, pristine waters, and gorgeous reefs; and one of the reasons that many people enjoy visiting Cayman is because they feel safe, and that feeling of safety includes not having to worry about the quality of the food and drinking water. But how about the beaches and marine waters; what is being done to ensure their safety?

Auntie’s answer: The thought that Cayman’s waters might be contaminated, for whatever reason, is upsetting to say the least, so I understand your concern. I brought your questions to the Department of Environmental Health (DEH), and the laboratory manager, Antoinette Johnson, who was quoted in the article you reference, responded.

First of all, she explained that, according to World Health Organisation guidelines, recreational water quality is based on a combination of sanitary inspection and microbial quality assessment. For the public beaches that DEH monitors, inspection has not revealed any point sources of pollution, such as sewage outfalls, she said.

For the latter check, Ms Johnson said that environmental circumstances can periodically cause elevated microbial counts “which can be explained by the conditions such as rough seas, storm water run-off, or sargassum influx”. If tests reveal consistently higher microbial levels without a clear reason for the rise, that would “trigger a more in-depth investigation and sanitary survey to determine the cause”.

Since traditional indicators for faecal pollution are microorganisms such as E. coli, which can come from several sources (not just human waste) it can only be inferred from those results that pathogens may be present, she added.

But either way, a sanitary survey involves “a comprehensive evaluation of the environmental factors affecting the quality of the waters of a bathing beach”, Ms Johnson said, adding this could include sewage and industrial wastewater discharge, storm water overflows, animals and agricultural drainage. The survey would look at the relationship of these possible sources to the beach in question as well as the location and volume of the pollution, and its chemical, bacterial and physical characteristics.

However, she added, “Elevated numbers of the indicator organism do not necessarily mean that persons are swimming in water heavily contaminated with sewage, as was implied in the article.”

As for the general safety of Cayman’s beaches, the DEH looks at other factors in addition to monitoring beach microbial quality and taking sanitary surveys. The department also undertakes epidemiological surveillance, which is collecting, analysing and interpreting health data, in cases where the quality of recreational water might be connected to people falling ill.

“Our environmental health officers are trained professionals who assess all data in the context of all of the relevant parameters and within the limitations of resources under which they work,” Ms Johnson said.

And that leads me to your query about the safety of the water in the Sister Islands. At the moment the lab on Cayman Brac “is limited to sampling for potable water, swimming pools and dialysis feed water testing as there is a single environmental health officer and no environmental health assistant/lab tech”. The monitoring programme is “risk-based”, combining lab testing with inspections such as sanitary surveys.

“Given limited resources, these categories of testing are assigned higher priority as they involve either direct ingestion, limited bodies of water with high risk of contamination, or exposure of at-risk populations,” she said, adding, “Marine waters, in the absence of direct sewage contamination (outfalls) present a lower risk to healthy individuals and would divert resources from these higher risk categories.”

That doesn’t mean it is being ignored, Ms Johnson said, explaining that once another officer is stationed on the Brac, the testing of recreational water will be added back to the routine monitoring protocol. But if any test results are found to be unsatisfactory, these are followed up by the environmental health officer, she said.

My take on all this is that the DEH seems to be doing all it can considering the shortage of environmental officers, and I am willing to accept the explanation for the elevated number of microbes found, though that may provide little comfort to everyone. But if all the department needs to ensure that it can undertake routine testing, and thus allay any public concern, is additional staff, then I hope that gets that sorted soon.

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Comments (16)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    In North America, the spelling is feces and the adjective is spelled fecal.
    * faeces (British), (archaic)

    CNS: Yes. CNS uses British spelling throughout. If you see American spelling where it differs from the British, it’s a slip up. However, we use the local vocabulary, which is often American.

    • Anonymous says:

      We are a British colony. Show respect for Her Majesty’s language but accept that our greatest language influences these days are American especially as we become South Miami Beach, South.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The most troubling thing is that there is no DEH policy in place to inform the public about potentially dangerous beach contamination and apparently no plans to put such plans in place, see below:

    “No policy for alerting public to ocean bacteria spikes”

    April 8, 2019 Cayman Compass Article:

    “…Enterococci is measured in the number of observed colony forming units per 100 millilitres of water. The US Environmental Protection Agency has established a safe limit of 35 units of enterococci per 100 mL. Florida issues a public advisory when levels exceed 70 units. Beaches in Massachusetts are closed when levels exceed 100 units for a single water sample. In California, the level is 104 units.
    On Oct. 31, 2018, samples from Bodden Town Public Beach were measured at 1,733 units. Two other beaches, East End Heritage Beach and North Side Public Beach had readings of 1,533 units and 1,300 units respectively…”

    “When no news is bad news”

    April 9, 2019 Cayman Compass Editorial:

    “…Apparently, the DEH has no policy of alerting the public about high bacteria levels in the waters off our popular beaches. Moreover, the Compass learned that it is not unusual for the department to fall behind on quarterly water sampling…”

  3. Anonymous says:

    I feel sorry for the “ambushed” visitors, but am beginning to think that people of the Cayman Islands deserve what they’re getting (that goes for all Cayman ills), since they only “care” about gay marriage.
    The person who asked the question should spread it on social media outside this country. May be, and only may be, something would start to change. But I highly doubt that.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Any faecal matter on the east coast most likely came from a cruise ship having one last pump of the bilges before reaching port.

  5. Anonymous says:

    In these islands of Sun & Fun , we never flush for Number #1. Just the second one..

  6. Anonymous says:

    What the hell do the people at the Cayman Department Of Environment Health do all day?

    • Anonymous says:

      What do you do all day? Perhaps when you see the next job advert for the DEH officer, you should read it and apply. I can’t speak to what the DEH officers in Grand Cayman does but I have witnessed the one in the Sister Islands at work constantly. I don’t know how she does it. She works above and beyond most people.

      • Anonymous says:

        8:11, One expects the Department Of Environmental Health to monitor the water on our beaches considering how many tourists swim in our waters. So I ask again what do DEH officials do all day if they don’t do something as simple as monitoring the water on our beaches on Grand Cayman?

  7. Anonymous says:

    We don’t! [know if waters are safe]

  8. Anonymous says:

    I had asked the same question back in 2008 when I first came to Cayman. Nobody knew what I was talking about.

    Here is Florida beaches website that displays information about the results from routine bacterial monitoring



    As you can see monitoring is routine and data is current.

    Cayman DOE only makes excuses and dismisses all concerns as trivial. There should be some Laws mandating routine monitoring and public notification of the daily conditions for public beaches.

    Meantime, just like with incinerators emissions all they could say is: “DEH does not have the “necessary equipment to allow for adequate monitoring of such emissions at this time”.
    As for when the DEH will be able to test for these emissions, “It is hoped that (the department) will be able to do so in the foreseeable future.”

    Visit Cayman and swim in its waters (and breath its air) at your own risk.

    • Anonymous says:

      no accountability and no responsibility

    • Anonymous says:

      yeah the water here and air here is definitely not safe. many people have bought masks because it’s very polluted here. as for the water, i would limit swimming…it’s just pesticides and chemicals in the water. just last week i was swimming at eden and there was tons of oil clouds in the water……

  9. Anonymous says:

    “we were swimming in waters that were heavily contaminated with sewage.”

    Faecal bacteria *may* indicate sewage contamination, they don’t confirm that.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh well that makes me feel so much better…

      • Anonymous says:

        Quite like seeing dogs roaming in the distance and immediately assuming that they’re vicious dogs that are going to come bite you.