Fall is a magnificent season to be out on the water.

What better time to brush up on water quality basics for recreational water users?

You don’t have to be swimming to be vulnerable to water pollution.

Compared to swimming and surfing you have less contact with the water when you are sailing and boating, rowing, flat water paddling, and fishing and shellfish harvesting.

But, if the water is polluted, these types of activities still put your health at risk.

These 3 facts can help you protect your health so that you can enjoy being on the water this fall, worry free.

Fact #1: Contaminated water can affect your health, even if you are not swimming

When you are on or near but not “under” the water, the two biggest risks to your health are from touching and inhaling water contaminated with bacteria and other pollutants.

Photo by Thomas & Dianne Jones

Skin contact
Skin contact with contaminated water can cause rashes and other skin problems. Bacteria can enter the body through openings, such as ears, nose, eyes, and through cuts and scrapes in the skin.

Inhalation
Inhaling contaminated water can lead to respiratory illnesses, and infections in the eyes, ears, and nose. The longer you are out on the water, the closer you are to the water’s surface, and the intensity of your workout all increase the inhalation of mists and aerosols.

Fact #2: Your activity and skill level determine your level of exposure to contaminated water

Your level of exposure to polluted water can increase depending on your activity. So, as you bait your hook or push your canoe off the beach, how do you determine your level of risk to water-borne illnesses and infections?

Photo by Chris Devers

In general you are more at risk of illness and infection:

1. the wetter your body gets
2. the more intense your activity is
3. the closer you are to the surface of the water
4. the longer you are out on the water

You are also at increased risk of exposure to contaminants if you are new to an activity, because learning a new water sport can be a very soggy undertaking.

There is always a risk of an incidental (or not so accidental) dunk underwater. If you are practicing your kayak rolls, if you jump off a dock to cool off after rowing practice, if a fight with a fish takes you downriver, then your exposure to pollutants in the water increases.

Fact #3: You are less likely to get sick from contaminated water if you are familiar with water quality issues and pollution sources

Water quality monitoring programs usually focus on whether or not water has met recreational water criteria at designated public bathing beaches. So, it is important to be aware that, often times, waters used for boating, rowing, fishing etc. are not monitored for water quality.

Further, most water quality monitoring programs in Canada and the US wrap up at the end of the summer, which means that, come fall, many recreational water users don’t have access to current water quality information.

In order to protect your health when you are out on the water :

Recognize pollution sources: Look for pipes, ditches and drains, sewage outfalls, and the mouths of rivers and creeks. This is where the highest concentration of contaminants will be.

Avoid recreational water activities after a heavy rainfall: When it rains a lot, contaminants are washed into the watershed from riverine and stormwater discharges. Sewage bypasses and runoff from fields and septic tanks can also lead to water quality problems. Avoid contact with water for 3 days after a storm event.

Trust your nose and eyes: If the water looks or smells bad, if the water is milky or murky, covered in scum or algae, smells of sewage or strongly of algae, don’t risk it.

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Swim Guide shares the best information we have at the moment you ask for it. Always obey signs at the beach or advisories from official government agencies. Stay alert and check for other swimming hazards such as dangerous currents and tides. Please report your pollution concerns so Affiliates can help keep other beach-goers safe.

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