Background: Studies of health risks associated with recreational water exposure require investigators to make choices about water quality indicator averaging techniques, exposure definitions, follow-up periods, and model specifications; however, investigators seldom describe the impact of these choices on reported results. Our objectives are to report illness risk from swimming at a marine beach affected by nonpoint sources of urban runoff, measure associations between fecal indicator bacteria levels and subsequent illness among swimmers, and investigate the sensitivity of results to a range of exposure and outcome definitions.
Methods: In 2009, we enrolled 5674 people in a prospective cohort at Malibu Beach, a coastal marine beach in California, and measured daily health symptoms 10–19 days later. Concurrent water quality samples were analyzed for indicator bacteria using culture and molecular methods. We compared illness risk between nonswimmers and swimmers, and among swimmers exposed to various levels of fecal indicator bacteria.
Results: Diarrhea was more common among swimmers than nonswimmers (adjusted odds ratio = 1.88 [95% confidence interval = 1.09–3.24]) within 3 days of the beach visit. Water quality was generally good (fecal indicator bacteria levels exceeded water quality guidelines for only 7% of study samples). Fecal indicator bacteria levels were not consistently associated with swimmer illness. Sensitivity analyses demonstrated that overall inference was not substantially affected by the choice of exposure and outcome definitions.
Conclusions: This study suggests that the 3 days following a beach visit may be the most relevant period for health outcome measurement in recreational water studies. Under the water quality conditions observed in this study, fecal indicator bacteria levels were not associated with swimmer illness.