When health officials find the water quality is unsafe for swimming at Lake Michigan beaches, warnings are quickly posted. But those who pleasure boat, canoe, kayak or fish along the Chicago and Calumet river systems don't have the protection of environmental standards.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health have taken the first step to change that through a study called CHEERS - the Chicago Health, Environmental Exposure and Recreation Study - with a $3.75 million contract awarded to UIC from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
The general public is being asked to help as well.
"The idea is to come up with a water quality standard for the waterways," said project leader Dr. Samuel Dorevitch, research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences.
"In order to establish a water quality standard, there has to be a scientific basis," Dorevitch said. "This is an epidemiologic study, an observational study, in which we'll recruit people doing secondary water-contact activities on Chicago area waterways - in other words, activities other than swimming," he said.
"We'll determine the rate of illness for people who do these activities and how it relates to measures of water quality. In the end, we'll have compiled enough data for the Illinois EPA to set water quality standard for people enjoying activities on the waterway."
CHEERS' next major recruitment effort will be Sunday, Sept. 16 at the Friends of the Chicago River Flatwater Classic, which is expected to attract hundreds of canoe and kayak enthusiasts.
Volunteers will be wearing CHEERS t-shirts for identification.
Over the next year and a half, Dorevitch and his team hope to survey more than 9,000 people. They will canvass boaters - both power and paddle - and recreational fishermen along the Chicago and Calumet River systems, as well as Lake Michigan and the Skokie Lagoons. They will also survey joggers, bikers and others engaged in recreational activities along the lake or waterways, but who do not come in direct contact with the water.
Data from the 9,000 or so surveyed will give biostatisticians a significant sample to accurately differentiate and determine the sources and levels of health risks.
CHEERS canvassers will be out enlisting participants along both the lake and area waterways. Participants will be asked a few preliminary questions, then about 10 minutes of follow-up questions after they finish boating or fishing. They will get phone calls over three subsequent weeks to see if they have developed any intestinal, skin, eye, respiratory or ear infections or symptoms. Some participants may be visited by a nurse or doctor.
CHEERS participants receive a t-shirt, a $15 gift card after completing the preliminary questions and a $35 check after the follow-up questions.
Dorevitch said the study received a lot of input and feedback from local governmental and environmental groups to reflect their concerns. An international panel of reviewers with expertise in water quality, epidemiology and infectious diseases also provided suggestions on the study.
"I think everyone wants to see local water quality get better, and the public will benefit from a better understanding of how recreational water quality affects health," Dorevitch said. "That's something this project will address."