Lakefront Closed Indefinitely: DHMO Contamination

Dave was out at L1 a short while ago and alerted me of a new and very distressing development. It appears that all access to the lakefront has been banned until further notice due to excessive levels of potentially toxic chemical contaminants in the water, specifically dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO).

DHMO, also known as hydroxylic acid, is an industrial solvent and coolant that is used, among other things, in the production of silicon wafers and in nuclear power plants. It is also used extensively in the distribution of pesticides and is a key component of toxic agricultural runoff. In the Midwest alone DHMO has caused millions of dollars of property damage due to its corrosive effect on infrastructure.

From a human health and safety perspective, DHMO exposure can be especially harmful – and even fatal. Accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities, can cause severe injury or even death, and prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage. Known as the “silent killer,” DHMO toxicity is responsible for over 300,000 fatalities each year worldwide.

The health and safety of all OWC swimmers is the number one priority to us.

In compliance with this lakefront ban, OWC will discontinue all meetups immediately.

How People Drown

Drowning is easy. In fact, it’s so easy that over 3,000 people annually in the U.S. succumb to it.

The process of drowning is very straightforward:

  1. Water enters the lungs of a person triggering automatic spasms to the larynx
  2. These spasms temporarily seal the air pipe in order to prevent additional liquid from entering the lungs (a natural defense mechanism)
  3. This “choking” sensation triggers a panic response which accelerates the person’s heart rate
  4. An accelerated heart rate coupled with a sealed air pipe causes generalized hypoxia, an inadequate supply of oxygen to the body as a whole
  5. Deprived of oxygen, the person’s cells shift to anaerobic metabolism and flood the muscles with lactic acid, causing rapid fatigue which quickly leads to exhaustion
  6. Unable to remain afloat, the person inhales additional water which accelerates the above cycle
  7. The continuing oxygen deprivation leads to cerebral hypoxia causing unconsciousness
  8. As the person loses consciousness, the larynx relaxes allowing the lungs to fill with water
  9. Unless rescued at this point, the person dies from either advanced cerebral hypoxia or myocardial infarction (heart attack)

Not drowning is also just as easy.

The key is to interrupt this lethal cascade of events as early as possible – and one of the best ways to do this is to become comfortable with the technique known as drownproofing.

One of my biggest beefs with the endurance sports community is that they never seem to teach this as part of their open water swim training (as least I’ve never seen it being taught anywhere).  Instead, they teach you how to tread water, swim faster, sight in open water, and navigate the chaotic scrum of the swim start.

But never how not to drown in the first place.

Whenever I work one-on-one with a swimmer for an open water lesson, the first thing we go over is drownproofing.  I make sure they’re comfortable handling any situation that might potentially trigger the drowning process.  

And drownproofing is really easy to learn – even a small child can do it:

So the next time you’re out in the open water with your swimming or triathlon training group, be sure to ask everyone whether or not they know how to drownproof.

And if the coaches don’t teach it – or if they don’t know what you’re talking about – you have my permission to nail them on it…



Call us at +1 (312) 927-0299 or send us an email, and we’ll talk about your specific needs and how we can tailor a training session just for you.

IMPORTANT: Help Keep the Ladders in Place After Labor Day!

It’s that time of year again. PLEASE help spread to word to keep the safely ladders (including L1) in place out at Oak Street Beach. You can contact the Park District at 312.742.PLAY (7529) or go to the Chicago Park District Facebook Page and post a note.

I’m reposting Dave’s comments from last year below. While the year has changed, the issue is still the same.

*** RED ALERT ***
As we all know all too well … The summer of 2009 never arrived as promised and very very soon the Chicago Park District will pull all of the swim ladders at Oak Street Beach….

1) If someone one slips and falls in this winter, it’s a long cold swim to try to get out
2) Many people continue to swim in the fall, winter, and spring
3) The fire and police scuba squads use the area for training and rescues, and they use the ladders
4) The city can save money by not removing the ladders and re-installing them the next year
5) The winter ice has not damaged Ladder #1 over the last 10 years, and it has stayed in year round
6) The new ladders at Montrose are welded in and cannot be removed

*** Hopefully if all of us call to plead our case they might leave in the ladders…
Call now and do not wait or you might show up for a swim next Tuesday and find all of the ladders gone….

Diver Dave
Ladder #1
Oak Street Beach

How and why Chicago’s sewage enters Lake Michigan

There is a swim ban this weekend at all Chicago beaches due to “water quality issues.” This is because the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) opened the Wilmette and Chicago River locks at 2:30am on Saturday morning and released large quantities of sanitary sewage diluted in part by the sudden influx of stormwater.

Let’s examine how the sewage got there in the first place.

Chicago has what’s known as a combined sewer system. Under this design, all of the sanitary sewage as well as any incoming stormwater eventually makes its way to a shared outfall pipe or reservoir:

(Source EPA)

In contrast, many municipal sewer systems constructed after WWII collect and drain stormwater in drainage lines which do not mix with the sanitary sewage drainage systems. These are appropriately termed separated sewage systems:

(Source EPA)

As the first image indicates, sudden and heavy rainstorms can very often deluge a combined sewer system with excess stormwater. When this happens, the combined sewer overflows (CSOs) can overwhelm the shared outfall pipes and reservoirs and cause unwanted flooding and “backups” in both the sanitary sewage lines as well as the storm drain systems:

To prevent these occurrences – or to at least mitigate them – the city of Chicago and the MWRD designed and developed the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, a.k.a. the “Deep Tunnel.” Commissioned in the mid-1970’s and still under construction, the TARP is essentially an expanded reservoir system for CSOs that take place during heavy rainfalls.

Unfortunately, an especially heavy rainstorm will still occasionally overwhelm the TARP.

When this happens, the MWRD will divert the excess CSOs to any number of permitted outfalls – most of which empty into the Chicago River, the Calumet River, and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

However, under sustained storm conditions, CSOs from these permitted outfalls can actually overwhelm these river and canal systems as well. Under this scenario, the MWRD will open one or more of the river locks such as the Chicago Harbor lock, the Wilmette lock, or the O’Brien lock in order to prevent flooding.

And when these locks are opened, CSOs (combined sewer overflows) enter Lake Michigan and contaminate the water.

The good news is that this doesn’t happen very often. And theoretically, this shouldn’t take place at all once the TARP is fully completed and operational by 2019 (estimated).

But in the meantime, you might want to educate yourself on the risks E. Coli exposure and be wary of the conditions at those Chicago beaches more prone to pollution.

Post-lake swim hygiene (a.k.a. how to prevent swimmer’s ear and other yucky maladies)

As much as I enjoy swimming outdoors, I have to admit that it’s not always a pleasant experience. Unlike a swimming pool (well, unlike MOST swimming pools at least), the lake is not a sterile and antiseptic environment.

So at any given time, you might find some or all of these niceties in the water:

– Algae
– Pollen
– Bacteria (especially E. Coli)
– Viruses
– Parasites
– Fungi
– Mold spores
– Sewage effluent
– Heavy metals
– Pesticides
– Runoff from agriculture and urbanization
– Air pollution particulates

These water contaminants – whether naturally occurring or artificially created – unfortunately wreak havoc on our bodies if they’re allowed to remain in our systems for extended periods of time. When left unchecked, they can cause allergies, mild to severe ear infections (i.e. swimmer’s ear), sinus infections, and flu-like illnesses due to water-borne contaminants.

So while many of us do what we can to keep our beaches and swim areas clean and contaminant-free, we have to accept the reality that it’s impossible to completely eliminate these health risks whenever we swim in the lake.

But what we can do is mitigate their impact on our personal health.

Here are a few tips and techniques I use to stave off the effects of swimming in any outdoor body of water where any of the above contaminants might be present:


Prior to entering the lake, I irrigate my ear canals with a solution containing 50% white vinegar and 50% isopropyl alcohol:


As soon as I get out of the water, I once again irrigate my ear canals with the vinegar/alcohol solution. When I return home, I immediately get in the shower and clean myself with an antibacterial soap. I also irrigate my nasal passages with a warm water solution containing 1/4 teaspoon of sodium chloride (salt) and 1/4 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda):

To administer the vinegar/alcohol solution, I use a small pump spray bottle. For the nasal irrigation, I use a neti pot:

I used to get swimmer’s ear and have sinus problems all the time post-swim. However, I’ve never had any problems since I started with this pre/post swim “maintenance” program. So feel free to try this out if you think it can help you!

U.S. Consumption Patterns – The Last 100 Years

Be sure to check out the Economic Research Service’s recent report which tracks the last century of our country’s consumption trends.

As you can see, consumption of grain-based products has increased significantly over the past 30 years:

(click on image for large size)

Per the article:

Between 1972 and 2008, per capita availability of flour and cereal products increased from a record low 133 pounds per person to 196.5 pounds. The expansion reflects ample cereal stocks, strong consumer demand for a variety of breads, growing popularity of grain-based snack foods and other bakery items, and increased eating out that includes products served with buns, dough, and tortillas.

Also, meat consumption – especially chicken – has substantially increased during this time period:

(click on image for large size)

But what’s hidden in this increase is a concurrent – and indirect – increase in grain consumption. This is primarily due to the development of large livestock processing centers where the animals are fed a diet that is almost entirely grain-based.

And when it comes to fruit, more and more Americans are consuming it in processed forms:

(click on image for large size)

Ditto with eggs – along with a big surge in cheese consumption:

(click on image for large size)

Here are the bottom line statistics:

(click on image for large size)

And the ERS’ conclusions?

Adjusting for spoilage and other losses reduces the estimated number of calories available in 2005 from 4,000 per person per day to 2,705, up from 2,172 in 1970. Supersizing of food portions by food processors, eating places, and cookbook authors accounts in part for the increasing amount of loss-adjusted available calories since 1970. Comparing servings to Federal dietary recommendations shows that Americans eat too many servings from the grains and meat, eggs, and nut groups, and too few servings of vegetables, dairy products, and fruit, assuming a 2,000-calorie diet.

I agree with a lot of this. Americans consume too many grain-based products and too many foods that are highly processed (fruit, eggs, meat, etc.). But this analysis essentially recommends the following for the average American:

– Decrease grain consumption by 23%
– Decrease meat consumption by 17%
– Increase vegetable consumption by 43%
– Increase dairy consumption by 43%
– Increase fruit consumption by 100%

The problem with these recommendations is that they are based upon USDA/HSS Guidelines and the current food pyramid – all of which are the products of scientists, nutrition experts, staff members, and consultants with specific political and research agendas.

And just as important, many of these individuals are subjected to intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries.

The key is, we already know we eat too many grains, sugars, and processed foods for our own good. But while the quantities we consume are important, far more critical to our overall health is the quality of the foods we consume.

Remember: you can “tweak” the mix of the foods you consume all you want – but if it’s all unhealthy food it’s still 100% garbage.

The AMA is Wrong When it Comes to Women's Health

The misinformation out there is becoming so frequent that I can barely keep up with it…

The American Medical Association just released a jaw-dropping recommendation that women should engage in medium-level intensity exercise for 60 minutes a day, 7 days a week for life in order to maintain their weight.

The AMA’s recommendations are “aimed at women of normal weight who don’t want to diet but do want to avoid gaining weight over time.” So essentially, the AMA is telling women that they can eat whatever they want as long as they’re willing to step up the cardio to an hour a day – forever.

This is astonishing in its short-sightedness, and there are several inherent flaws with this logic. But I’m going to focus on two key issues:

1. 80% of all unhealthy weight gain is due to poor consumption (read diet) habits – not a lack of exercise.

Or to put it more simply, if you eat too much of the wrong types of food, you are virtually guaranteed to gain weight – even if you a fairly physically active individual. This means that if you defer to high amounts of grain-based, high-sugar, and high trans-fat foods, you are going to abnormally spike your insulin levels and overload you body’s ability to process this garbage.

And stepping up the cardio or signing up for a year’s worth of heavy endurance training is not going to address this very fundamental issue.

2. The best long-term indicator of human health is having a high percentage of lean body tissue – especially muscle mass. And you get this primarily through resistance training – not through cardio or endurance training.

All the marathon training, treadmill workouts, and spinning classes in the world will not build higher levels of life-sustaining lean muscle mass. In fact, too much cardio will actually cannibalize it.

And higher levels of cardio with no period of recovery leads to increased cortisol levels and chronic systemic inflammation. If you combine this with the inflammation already generated by poor eating habits, you are setting yourself up for a downward spiral that will only lead to stress, burnout, and illness.

Remember, you are what you eat – and no amount of physical activity will make up for a bad diet.

Update on the Asian Carp Threat: What Can We Expect Going Forward?

Today I attended a subject matter hearing at the Thompson Center regarding the Asian carp issue. Moderated by Illinois State Senator Susan Garrett and Senate Environment Committee, the hearing featured presentations and discussions by the following organizations and panelists:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Colonel Vince Quarles (Commander of the Chicago District)
The Nature Conservatory: Lindsay Chadderton (Aquatic Invasive Species Director)
Illinois Department of Natural Resources: Marc Miller (Director), John Rogner (Assistant Director)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Bill Bolen (Great Lakes National Program Office)
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: Ed Stadacher (Waterways Operations)
Alliance for the Great Lakes: Joel Brammeier (President)
Illinois Commercial Fishing Association: Kirby Marsden (President)
Schafer Fisheries: Mike Schafer (Owner)

The hearing also had a short “Open Forum” section featuring the following additional stakeholder organizations and representatives:

Metropolitan Planning Council: Josh Ellis
Natural Resources Defense Council: Henry Henderson (Director)
Sierra Club: Jack Darin (Director)

There was a lot of really good, in-depth discussion on the current status of the Asian carp threat and what might happen in the future were it to successfully establish a presence in the Great Lakes. I’ll try to distill the key points of the hearing down to the essentials. So here goes…

1) There are two non-indigenous “Asian Carp” species that threaten the Great Lakes – the bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) and the silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix).

Both of these species are native to the large rivers and associated floodplain lakes of Northern and Eastern Asia (primarily China), and both feed by filtering plankton from the water. Because they are so good at this, the bighead carp and silver carp were imported to the U.S. in the 1970’s to help control algae growth and improve water quality in sewage treatment plants and aquaculture facilities. The silver carp is infamously known as the “jumping carp” due to its proclivity for leaping out of the water when startled.

2) The bighead carp is already in the Great Lakes.

Bighead carp have been reported in Lake Erie as early as 1995. Since then, other large adult bighead carp have been either captured or spotted in Lake Erie. However, there is no indication that they have established a breeding population (more on that below). Here is a very recent map by the U.S. Geological Survey indicating the current territory of the bighead carp.

3) The Illinois River is heavily infested with both bighead carp and silver carp – and there is pretty strong evidence that they are both very close to entering Lake Michigan through the Chicago water system.

The fish kill conducted last December in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal uncovered the presence of a bighead carp near the Lockport dam. However, environmental DNA (eDNA) testing of the Chicago waterways has indicated the potential presence of both bighead and silver carp as far up as Calumet Harbor and the Wilmette Pumping Station. Previous tests had only indicated a positive presence of the Asian carp eDNA as far upstream as the Calument Sag Channel:

The eDNA findings are significant. The tests are designed to detect the specific cellular debris (mucus, feces, urine, and remains) of only the bighead carp and the silver carp. And more importantly, ratios of eDNA between the two species varies by the location tested. This makes it highly unlikely that the eDNA was carried upstream in the ballast water of barges.

4) If either or both Asian carp species enters Lake Michigan via the Chicago waterways, they may or may not be able to develop a self-sustaining population.

This is the wildcard issue that we cannot yet address with 100% certainty. Both the silver carp and the bighead carp are certainly quite capable of surviving in the Great Lakes. In their natural setting, both species are big lake fish. However, both species need river systems to reproduce successfully. And therein lies the rub.

Both Asian carp species rely on long stretches of river currents (up to 100 kilometers) to keep their eggs in suspension during spawning. Without such currents, the eggs sink to the riverbed (or lake bed) and become inviable. So even if the bighead carp and silver carp manage to invade Lake Michigan, it is questionable as to whether the water dynamics of the Great Lakes can provide such lengthy and constant currents.

Nevertheless, these two carp species are quite adaptable. Despite being lake fish by preference, both the bighead carp and silver carp can live in slower moving rivers or in low velocity habitats in rivers. And they can also adapt to – and thrive in – large lakes with limited river systems feeding into them.

Hungary’s Lake Balaton is often cited as a comparable case study for what we might see in the Great Lakes. Lake Balaton is a fresh water lake about 1/5 the size of Lake Erie with a similar climate and water chemistry. The silver carp was introduced into Lake Balaton in 1972 and has since become a thriving, self-sustaining species – all without needing 100 kilometers of free flowing, undammed river water to reproduce.

So where do we go from here?

As you can see, this is not an easy issue to address. And there’s millions of dollars on all sides of the issue at stake which further complicate us finding a simple and elegant solution.

Many conversationalist groups advocate sealing off the canal system altogether and restoring the Chicago water system to its natural pre-canal ecosystem. But these ideas are quickly dismissed as unfeasible by the water reclamation district which warns of catastrophic flooding and water contamination that might result.

And while these various stakeholders polemic their respective causes, the INDR and USACE keep stepping up their efforts to contain the silver carp and bighead carp before they breach the electric barriers – provided they haven’t done so already.

So I’ll continue to stay on top of this and keep you all informed on any new updates as I hear about them. In the meantime, my recommendations would be to heed the timeless wisdom of Douglas Adams – Don’t Panic.

Important – Read This! Chicago’s Winter Lakefront Hazards

After I scoped out the swim site yesterday, I decided to check out the lakefront at North Avenue Beach. The cumulative winter winds and waves over the past 20-30 days have created a fairly continuous ice shelf that extends out quite a ways over the water:

Unfortunately, many people walk over this without even realizing that there is essentially nothing underneath them but an icy lake:

Remember – just because there’s ice on top doesn’t mean that there’s dry land underneath supporting it.

Indiana’s Water Rules Still Don’t Protect Lake Michigan

I’m a big fan of the Alliance For the Great Lakes, and I support them whenever they need help with local publicity. I received an email notice about an upcoming deadline regarding public participation for a water quality ruling decision. Since this affects Lake Michigan – and all of us who swim in it regularly – I’ve copied the notice in it’s entirety below:

Act Now! Object to Indiana rules allowing more Lake Michigan pollution!

The public has until January 30 to comment on a federally mandated water quality rule proposed for Indiana, which still falls short of protecting Lake Michigan. Introduced in 2008 and since vetted at four public meetings, the draft rule contradicts the intent of federal antidegradation laws, which are meant to protect water quality while working to comply with existing standards.

Instead, Indiana’s rule would trigger an antidegradation review only when a new or increased discharge would increase the level of a pollutant to the degree it poses a potentially “detrimental effect” on lake uses.

Other concerns:

* The rule includes several unjustified exemptions, and excludes phosphorus, sediment and other key pollutants for which no thresholds exist from protective provisions — even though these pollutants are known to harm water quality.

* The rule exempts so-called “de minimis” – or low-level — new pollution discharges from a federal requirements that the pollution is a necessary byproduct of important local economic or social benefit.

The result: Using the methods proposed in the draft rule, state regulators could permit multiple new low-level discharges of a pollutant that together have a significant cumulative impact on Lake Michigan’s water quality, without any evidence that the additional pollution is justified.

The Alliance is working with a coalition of groups in Indiana to strengthen the federally mandated rule, which sets a limit for how much new pollution can be discharged to Lake Michigan and other waterways in the state.

Action Needed: Keep the Pressure On. Mail or fax comments asking Indiana to improve the proposed antidegradation rule to fully protect Lake Michigan.

Tell Indiana that Lake Michigan deserves the highest level of protection from new or increased pollution. Indiana’s proposed rule must be strengthened to protect water quality as the Clean Water Act intended. All comments must be postmarked, faxed or hand delivered to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management by Jan. 30.

Mail comments to:

LSA Document #08-764 (Antidegradation)
MaryAnn Stevens, Rules Development Branch
Office of Legal Counsel
Indiana Department of Environmental Management
100 North Senate Ave.
MC 65-41
Indianapolis, Indiana 46204-2251.

Fax comments to: (317) 233-5517.

Hand-deliver comments to: Receptionist, 13th floor reception desk, Office of Legal Counsel, Indiana Government Center North, 100 N. Senate Ave, Room N1301, Indianapolis.