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Dangerous Levels of E. coli Found in Waterways

More than 3.5 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage and industrial waste were dumped into metro Detroit lakes, rivers and streams because of heavy rains during the past month, leading to beach closures and high levels of contamination at the start of the swimming season.

Since May 7, more than 5 inches of rain has fallen on the area, overwhelming outdated sewage systems that dump a toxic cocktail of rainwater, fertilizers, human and industrial waste, chemicals, parasites and other pollutants into waterways when the retention basins become full.

The sewage discharges were among the largest in the past 25 years for a one-month period, according to a Free Press review of sewage records.

"It's troublesome because water quality is affected when there are heavy rains," said Steve Lichota, associate director of environmental health for the Macomb County Health Department. "There are huge swings in contamination levels."

One of the biggest threats of sewage is E. coli, bacteria that if swallowed while swimming can cause severe cramps, nausea and diarrhea.

Levels of E. coli skyrocketed in rivers and lakes in Macomb, Wayne and St. Clair counties, prompting the closure of at least 10 beaches. Two of them, New Baltimore Park Beach and St. Clair Shores Memorial Park Beach, each had levels more than 1,000 times what is considered safe.

Sewage and storm water, containing a toxic cocktail of bacteria, parasites, viruses and chemicals that can make people ill, are the prime cause of beach closures and bans on fishing, swimming and canoeing.

A Free Press report in January revealed that Detroit's sewer system, which serves most of southeast Michigan, overflows when even a little rain falls.

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