One of the most perplexing and shocking stories coming out of the Rio Olympics is no longer the pollution in the waters. What really astonishes me are the comments from Canadian athletes saying it isn’t as bad as the pollution in Canada’s waters.
Genevieve Orton - Kayaker from Nova Scotia
Like Rafuse and Boyd, Orton been hearing the water conditions don’t look “nearly as dreadful” as some have feared. But she’s also not fazed by unsanitary conditions, since they train near a sewage treatment plant in Toronto - “so I’m feeling pretty prepared for gross water,” Orton said.
Lee Parkhill - Sailor from Oakville, Ontario
Most of the "rubbish" only comes after big rainstorms, and he has mostly seen empty water bottles floating around. He said the race courses in Rio look "like normal, like Toronto Harbour," where he trained for four years as a teen. "I've sailed a lot in Toronto Harbour and after a big rainstorm, all the debris come from the Humber River," he said. "It's almost worse than what I see here."
The fact is the athletes are speaking the truth. Waters around Canadian urban centres are notoriously polluted.
But this isn’t a secret. We’ve been saying this about Toronto since 2001. What’s amazing is how many people still dispute it. With Swim Guide, we monitor most of Canada’s beaches and public recreational areas on the water. When I look at the information Swim Guide shows, I notice two things: how few beaches are left in Toronto, and how little is monitored.
For example, we calculated that only 5% of Toronto’s waterfront is monitored and fit for recreational water use. The rest – the other 95% of Toronto’s shoreline – is at your own risk. And if you look out over Toronto’s harbour on a sunny summer day, you’ll find most of the city’s sailors and paddlers are taking that risk whether they’re aware of it or not.
Which is worse: Toronto or Rio?
According to Ontario’s recreational water standards, swimming is considered safe when there is less than 100 E.coli per 100 mL of water. Paddling and boating is considered safe when there is less than 1000 E.coli per 1000 mL of water.
Recently, most samples we collected from Toronto’s harbour revealed the bacteria was, in most samples, higher than 1000 cfu. On July 15, after 6.6 mm of rain, samples from Pier 4 and Bathurst Quay both resulted in 13,000 cfu.
This is common for many Canadian cities including Montreal, Vancouver, and Victoria which were singled out by Canada’s Olympic medical doctor. But what makes it most shocking for Toronto or Montreal is that the waters we dump our stormwater and sewage into isn’t an ocean, but our freshwater supply and our drinking water. In fact, it is 20% of the world’s fresh water supply. Lake Ontario alone is a source of drinking water for 9 million people.
This is why I’m frustrated with Canadian media focusing so much attention on Rio without mentioning what’s happening here.
Rio reminds us of our apathy when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes. Rio reminds us that Canada’s freshwater it is a great gift.
It’s time Canada stopped making excuses that it is too expensive to protect our waters. It is time Canada started planning for the day when all Canadians have access to swimmable drinkable fishable water again. And it is time for Canadians to renew their own connections to our waterbodies and begin to represent and speak up for our waters. It is after all the most important asset we have.
Somewhere some water body shaped who we are as Canadians and to do harm to our waters is to do harm to ourselves. Keep that in mind as we watch the Games!