Nothing is better than splashing around in the water on a hot summer day, but B.C. residents should be questioning whether that refreshing dip is going to make them sick, says Lauren Hornor, executive director of Fraser Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization working to ensure B.C. waters are safe for swimming, drinking and fishing.
This week, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority issued a “no swimming” advisory for three West Vancouver beaches due to high levels of E.coli, which can increase risk of gastro-intestinal illness.
“Due to high levels of bacteria in the water swimming is not recommended at Ambleside, Dundarave and Sandy Cove beaches,” the health authority said.
While some B.C. health authorities immediately post fecal coliform bacteria levels online after receiving test results for beaches, others either do not receive regular information or do not make those figures public unless levels are dangerously high, Hornor said.
That means people do not know pollution levels at some of the region’s most popular beaches, including White Rock, Cultus Lake, Crescent Beach, Alice Lake Park Beach in Squamish and Camp Jubilee on Indian Arm, Hornor said.
“Those are the top five beaches that are very well used, but not tested or the information is not publicly available,” she said.
Test results often not made public
The main offenders, according to Fraser Riverkeeper, are Fraser Health Authority, which receives test results from Metro Vancouver, but does not make results publicly available online, and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which meticulously reports on Vancouver beaches, but has not yet posted any water quality data for Garibaldi, Squamish or the Sunshine Coast.
Interior Health Authority and Vancouver Island Health Authority post only safe or unsafe notifications, instead of coliform bacteria counts, and Fraser Riverkeeper is working to obtain more specific numbers.
All available results are included in Swim Guide, a free app developed by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, which gives information and pollution counts for beaches across Canada, the U.S. and, this year, parts of Mexico.
Swim Guide marks beaches with red, yellow or green indicators, but beaches falling under Fraser Valley Health or in the Garibaldi/Sunshine Coast areas have grey markers showing no water quality information is available.
Lack of information means health risks, said Hornor, who has two young children and worries about their beach safety.
E.coli and sewage make people sick
Fraser Riverkeeper is part of Mountain Equipment Co-op's Homewaters campaign this summer and is encouraging British Columbians to call on local health authorities to provide reliable, consistent water quality information.
“When there’s E.coli and sewage or feces, whether from humans or animals, it causes all sorts of problems,” Hornor said said.
Effects can range from inflamed eyes and itchy skin to serious gastro-intestinal illness, with children and seniors most susceptible to infection. Harmful pathogens can enter the body through cuts or openings such as the mouth, ears and nose, meaning that even splashing around at the edge of the water can be a problem.
Hornor, an environmental lawyer, said two years of letters and phone calls to Fraser Health Authority have not produced an adequate response and frustrated members of Fraser Riverkeeper are preparing to submit a freedom-of-information request.
However, Gordon Stewart, the health authority’s health protection manager, said changes are on the way and numbers should be posted by late summer.
“We want to get it cracked this year. We are doing minor tweaks to the website,” he said. “We are making sure that, when we post stuff, it’s accurate and people are not confused by it.”
Beach testing is done by Metro Vancouver, which supplies results to the health authorities, and, if a beach is unsafe, warning signs are immediately posted, Stewart said.
In those cases, beaches are not closed for swimming, unless there is an event such as an oil spill, but swimmers are advised they have increased risks of gastro-intestinal illness.
Technical problems prevent test results from being posted
Vancouver Coastal Health Authority told Fraser Riverkeeper that most beaches in the Garibaldi and Sunshine Coast areas have “good to excellent historic water quality” and, with lower population levels, risks are smaller, but there are plans for more testing to ensure water quality has not deteriorated.
Vancouver Coastal spokeswoman Anna Marie D’Angelo said in an e-mailed response to questions from DeSmog Canada that Coast Garibaldi sampling is done by provincial parks staff or private camp operators who submit samples to the provincial laboratory.
Usually results would be posted on the website, but there have been some hitches, D’Angelo said.
“Unfortunately, the website is not capturing 2014 data as we’re experiencing some problems with the provincial lab and our web host in getting the 2014 results posted,” she said. “We’re working on resolving this. We are still receiving the results, they are just not making it to the website.”
What level of risk is acceptable?
In addition to obtaining information about pollution levels, swimmers then need to decide what level of fecal coliform bacteria they consider acceptable.
Health Canada and B.C. consider anything above 200 coliform units in 100 millilitres of water to be unsafe, but Fraser Riverkeeper follows the Ontario guideline in deeming more than 100 coliform units per 100 millilitres of water to be unacceptable.
Health Canada estimates that, using its guidelines, one or two per cent of swimmers will become ill from contamination. That means about 100,000 Canadians a year get sick from swimming in polluted waters.
A yuck factor that may make swimmers think twice about a relaxing dip in the water is that Metro Vancouver discharges more than 30 billion litres of untreated waste water annually into the Fraser River and Strait of Georgia from old combined sewage outfall pipes. When it rains heavily, sewage often bypasses treatment and heads straight into the river or ocean.
Vancouver, New Westminster and Burnaby are in the process of separating storm drains and sanitary sewers to prevent raw sewage spilling into the river and ocean during heavy rainfalls, but it will be about 30 years before work is completed.
However, some swimmers will not be deterred, said Hornor, noting that there are die-hards who insist in swimming in False Creek, despite warnings that even boaters should avoid prolonged skin contact with the water.
This story was made possible through support from Mountain Equipment Co-op as part of its Homewaters campaign, which is dedicated to preserving Canada’s fresh water from coast to coast.
Photo: Carlos Mejia Greene via Flickr