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Environmental and Workplace Health

Recreational Water Quality


Canadians have an abundance of fresh and salt water that can be used for recreational purposes. Three oceans border our shores and the Great Lakes, thousands of other lakes, and rivers and streams exist throughout Canada. Unfortunately, waters in and around urban centres and agricultural regions are becoming increasingly contaminated.

How do recreational waters get contaminated?

There are many sources of contamination. These include: sewage, industrial effluents and agricultural runÿoff (including manure, fertilizers and pesticides). Other sources of pollution include: urban storm water runÿoff, animal faeces, infected bathers, oil and gasoline spills from powerboats and marinas, and pollution from boaters.

What are some of the health risks of swimming in polluted water?

Microbiological contamination, e.g. untreated or poorly treated sewage, can cause a number of diseases. The most common are gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhoea, upper respiratory tract, eye, ear, nose or throat infections, and skin ailments. Chemical pollutants may also pose health risks but exposure to disease-causing microorganisms from untreated or poorly treated sewage is a greater risk.

Swallowing contaminated water is the primary source of exposure to disease-causing microorganisms. They may also enter the body through the ears, eyes, nose or through broken skin. Physical hazards are also possible when swimming in polluted water. If water is not clear due to contamination or weed growth, objects like rocks and broken glass are much less visible and more likely to cause injury.

How can I help make recreational water safer?

There are many ways individuals can help to keep recreational water safe.

  • Avoid going in the water if you have an open wound or an infection.
  • Don't use soap in recreational water. Soap nourishes algae and bacteria, helping them to grow.
  • Take limited amounts of food to beaches to avoid attracting animals and birds which leave droppings. Don't feed animals or birds, and securely close garbage bins.
  • Pick up your pet's droppings and dispose of them hygienically.
  • Avoid using fertilizers near recreational water.
  • If you live in a rural area make sure your septic system works properly.
  • Practice pollution-free boating by disposing of human waste hygienically.
  • Encourage your municipality and local industry to treat waste properly.

What is the federal government doing about this issue?

Regulations on recreational water quality are a provincial and territorial responsibility. Health Canada worked with officials in these areas to develop and publish national guidelines for recreational water quality. These guidelines can be viewed on our website or obtained by contacting us . These guidelines help to ensure that recreational waters are as free as possible from microbiological, physical and chemical hazards. To determine the risk of disease, the guidelines recommend conducting an environmental health assessment or sanitary survey at the beginning of each bathing season. Special attention should be given to: fecal matter, the occurrence of algae blooms, chemical pollutants, and any physical hazards.

Local health authorities monitor the water quality at public beaches on a regular basis throughout the bathing season. They test the water using an appropriate "pollution indicator organism". This is a common microorganism in the human digestive tract which when present in recreational water is indicative of fecal contamination.

Local health authorities are also responsible for investigating any illnesses or injuries resulting from bathing at public beaches. If the number of reported problems is unusually high the authorities will either increase their monitoring of water quality or temporarily close the beach to the public. In some cases, such as an outbreak of illness, tests for diseaseÿcausing organisms, like viruses, are conducted.

The public is notified in various ways, including media reports and signs along the shoreline, when a body of water is considered unsuitable for swimming. More details on the reason for the closure and the potential health risks involved can be obtained from the local health authorities.