The Canadian government is revamping water quality objectives, so in early January 2010, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Ottawa Riverkeeper and Fraser Riverkeeper worked together to prepare a series of recommendations that will help keep Canadian waterways clean so you can safely swim and paddle.
Health Canada released a draft document back in September 2009, called Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality, Third Edition. The draft guidelines would replace current guidelines, which are intended to help to protect your health whenever you use water for "recreational activities like swimming and diving, white water sports, sailing, canoeing, and fishing. The guidelines deal mainly with potential health hazards such as infections transmitted by disease-causing micro-organisms, and aesthetics and nuisance conditions."
The guidelines are based on "risk-assessments", which is to say that Health Canada makes calculated assumptions about what is likely safe for most individuals. In this case, their assumptions are that the guidelines will protect 98% of people, but that 1-2% of people will suffer from gastrointestinal illnesses. These illness are caused by faecal contamination in freshwater, which usually comes from poorly treated sewage. It sounds like a small percentage, but even a 1-2% risk means that tens of thousands of individuals would still get sick from swimming every year.
We are concerned that Health Canada has concluded that this risk is "tolerable" and "reasonable", but that individuals who swim or paddle in the great outdoors have no idea when or where they may join the ranks of the 1-2%.
The Health Canada guidelines are troublesome for a few other reasons, as well. They are weaker than the guidelines Ontario relies on to protect the natural environment. This means that Health Canada's guidelines could motivate sewage plant operators to dump more sewage into public waterways, assuming that there will be no impacts. Unlike Ontario's Beach Management Protocol, which outlines what a municipality is supposed to do when chronic beach pollution is identified, Health Canada's guidelines do not have a strong process in place for publicizing or solving problems.
Finally, one of the alarming parts of the guide is the proposal to create a second, weaker set of rules for "waters intended for secondary contact ..." In a nutshell, Health Canada proposes that waterways not "intended" primarily for swimming can be 5 times more contaminated than recreational waters (and 10 times more contaminated than recreational waters in Ontario) . The idea raises the same kinds of red flags as the "minor" works and waters proposal from last year's Navigable Waters Protection Act amendments or the ongoing changes to Ontario's Environmental Assessment process - there will be different sets of rules for different communities. Depending on who you are, who you know, and how much historic pollution you have already experienced, your local waterway may be 5 times more polluted than your neighbour's. Health Canada admits that there is no scientific basis for the guideline they proposed, so our recommendation is to abandon the notion of secondary waterways altogether.
We love that Health Canada is talking about recreational water use in Canada - our paddling heritage and our summer bathing seasons are two of our most precious cultural experiences. We hope that our recommendations will protect those experiences for generations to come. Read them online.
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