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Study Shows Casual Contact With Polluted Water Can Be Harmful

May 29, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Windsurfers, who skim the waves on surfboards driven by handheld sails, may be courting illness or infection if they fail to heed the same pollution warnings as swimmers, a new public health study reveals.

The study by a trio of Canadian researchers looked at what happened to 79 world-class windsurfers who competed for nine days in 1984 on a polluted bay and took an average of 18 falls into the water during their races.

Their results showed sharply higher risks for skin infection and digestive ailments than people who stayed ashore. Gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, for example, occurred 5.5 times more frequently among the windsurfers than among a control group ashore.

The study rebuts a belief by some public health officials that windsurfing, which has less body contact with water, can be safely allowed in some areas that are considered unsafe for swimming.

″Water pollution exposes windsurfers and swimmers to similar health hazards,″ the scientists concluded in their article in the June edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

″Recreational windsurfers are at even higher risk as they fall more often than professionals, ″ the researchers said. ″The same water quality criteria should therefore be applied to all recreational activities in which there is intentional, probable or accidental direct contact with water.″

The article was co-authored by three physicians at the Universite Laval in Quebec - Drs. Eric Dewailly, Claude Poirier and Francois Meyer - who studied competitors in the Windsurfer Western Hempisphere Championship, held in August 1984 in the St. Lawrence River’s baie de Beauport.

The bay is contaminated by Quebec’s sewage. The researchers estimate the fecal coliform count at high tide, when most of the races occurred, was about five times the acceptable level for swimming.

The 79 competitors participated in an average of seven three-hour races during the nine days, falling into the water an average of 18 times each. On the final day of the championship, the researchers said, 45 of the 79 competitors reported they had experienced symptoms of some ailment associated with polluted water.

That result was compared with 41 employees who worked at the championship site and ate the same meals. Of the 41, only eight suffered symptoms of water pollution problems - and four of those were among 10 recreational windsurfers in the control group.

The Canadian scientists said the windsurfers faced a risk 2.9 times higher of developing problems such as skin infection or digestive ailments.

And the risk increased with the number of falls into the polluted water, the researchers said. Symptoms occurred in all 10 competitors who reported falling 30 times or more, while only 44 percent of those falling 10 times or less reported symptoms.

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