Is Bermuda’s beach sewage problem par for the course, or a rarity?

When Ken Siegfried heard that the U.S. Consulate General in Hamilton, Bermuda, had issued a warning about ongoing dumping of raw sewage off the island’s south coast, he had flashbacks to a visit to the British territory last summer.

“I came down with a major ear infection on my third day there, which required immediate medical attention,” remembers Siegfried, a loan officer from Alexandria. His fever peaked at 102 degrees and he lost the hearing in one ear for two weeks.

“I’m wondering if this infection was caused by the raw sewage and the danger it can bring with it,” he says.

When Susan Stirling caught wind of the warning, she found herself recalling her time in Bermuda. “When I went swimming, I recall black, greasy objects in the water. On those days, my Bermudan friends just blamed the mess on stuff coming out of the caves polluted by the U.S. bases,” says Stirling, who was a marketing director for a Bermudan business association for more than a decade before falling ill with a “rapidly growing” cancer and returning to her native Toronto.

Her cancer is now in remission, but she wonders whether the dumping contributed to her illness.

Bermuda is one of the most beautiful islands in the Atlantic, if not the world. With its dramatic cliffs, turquoise waters and trademark pastel cottages, it’s a destination everyone should visit at least once. And while these claims of coastal contamination appear to be relatively isolated for now, they do raise a broader question for travelers planning a summer vacation: How much do you know about the water you’re swimming in? And what is a destination obliged to tell you?

The consulate’s warning seemed to take visitors and tourism officials by surprise. It noted that last year, as many as five of Bermuda’s beaches were described as “unfit for recreational use” on various occasions, based on water samples. And it warned of bacteria levels from fecal contamination up to four times the acceptable U.S. standard.

“The government of Bermuda has announced that it plans to take measures to reduce or treat the outfall,” the consulate added. “But as of March 2014, the dumping continues unabated.”

The American consulate, citing a scientific study, warned of possible negative health effects for swimmers, include gastroenteritis, ear infections, respiratory illnesses and staph infections. It recommended that visitors who swim in Bermuda’s waters consider getting hepatitis A and typhoid immunizations.

Bermudan officials dismissed the consulate’s conclusions. Trevor Moniz, Bermuda’s minister of health and environment, issued a statement reassuring visitors that the island’s beaches are “safe for swimming and recreational use” and that water quality is being closely monitored.

In a follow-up conversation with Bermudan tourism authorities, a representative blamed the test results on events “that were short in duration, self-resolving, limited in scope and driven by very specific weather circumstances.” He added that health officials closely observe Bermuda’s beaches and test water samples for bathing quality twice each week at major beaches. The results, he said, continue to meet the U.S. standard for acceptable bathing water quality.

Early this month, Bermudan officials also announced that they would introduce a public alert system when pollution is detected in bathing waters around south shore beaches.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t issued any similar warnings about contaminated water in Bermuda. An agency representative, asked about Siegfried’s complaint, sent me a link to a CDC Web page about recreational water illnesses caused by bacteria but did not directly comment on Siegfried’s condition.

Stateside beaches can become contaminated, too. Who can forget the tar balls of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico four years ago? If you’re thinking of catching a few waves on your San Diego vacation, consumer advocate John Mattes warns that Imperial Beach is closed from time to time because of raw sewage pumped into the ocean from Mexico.

San Diego returns the favor, he notes. It’s the last city on the West Coast allowed to pump only primary-treated waste into the ocean.

Destinations do disclose water hazards in their own way. San Diego’s official visitor site, for example, euphemistically advises visitors to “steer clear” of beaches close to the border, warning that they could be “unsuitable for swimming due to large, hazardous surf, lack of permanent lifeguards and contamination from the Tijuana River.” It does not note the nature of the contamination.

Another warning sign: hotels offering “clean beach” guarantees, which happened after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. One Key West, Fla., hotel promised that if tar balls or oil shut down the beaches, it would refund guests’ room rate and taxes. In practice, these guarantees are almost never invoked, but their presence can be a sign that there might be a problem with the water.

Tourism authorities aren’t required to tell you about an oil spill, sewage being pumped into the ocean or any other pollutant, seen or unseen, that you might encounter. If you’re concerned about water quality, you have to do your homework before taking a dip. Your first stop should be the Environmental Protection Agency’s beach monitoring site, which issues reports on the possible presence of disease-causing pathogens in the water.

Maybe that was the CDC’s point when it sent me the information about waterborne illnesses. Whether you’re in California, on the Gulf Coast or visiting Bermuda, you take a risk anytime you go swimming.

Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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