It’s summer time. School’s finished. Everyone is eager to kick off their shoes and plunge into the water at their favourite beach. For many families, the July long weekend is the first chance they’ve had this summer for a day together at the water’s edge. But with any activity involving kids, safety is a high priority. Lucky for you, we have outlined below how to keep your kids safe at the beach this summer.

Because, true to form, the first ones pulling on their bathing suits and hurling themselves into the waves are the world’s greatest water lovers: kids. It’s easy to understand. For how many of us is water the backdrop to our fondest childhood memories? It’s magical stuff.

Kids and babies love the water. And we love that they love the water. Every time you take your kids out for a day by or on the water you are privileging them with quality time with their watershed, and helping them build a strong bond with that lake, that pond, that beach, that river, that will last them a lifetime.

So how do you grapple with the inevitable question: “Is it okay to let my infant or my young child sit with me in the surf, or play and swim with me in the water?”

Photo by Glenn Buckholtz

Maybe a more realistic question is “My baby has been sneakily shoving wet sand in his mouth, and my daughter just learned to snorkel and refuses to lift her face out of the lake. Could they get sick?”

These are important questions, but even more important is knowing how to find the answer.

Basic guidelines

Here are a few basic rules to follow to help keep your kids safe this summer:

1. Check for swimming advisories. Consult Swim Guide before you leave and look for signs or flags at the beach. Advisories, warnings, postings, bans, and beach closures are all different ways of saying that you are at risk if you touch the water.

2. Stay out of the sand if there is a swimming advisory. When a beach or swimming site is posted with an advisory, you should assume the sand is also contaminated, especially at the water’s edge. Pathogens can persist in sand longer than in water.

3. Avoid contact with water for three days after heavy rain or a storm event. When it rains a lot, contaminants are washed into the watershed from both riverine and stormwater discharges. Also, during heavy rain, wastewater can overwhelm treatment facilities, leading to sewage bypasses. Water quality sampling results are not available for 24 to 48 hours after water is tested. That means, unless the health unit is taken precautionary measures, a beach might not be posted with an advisory or closed for a few days after it rained even though the water exceeds standards. In rural areas, runoff from fields and septic tanks can lead to water quality problems, too. To be on the safe side, always assume the water is contaminated after a rain event.

4. Look for pipes. Avoid swimming, wading, sitting, or splashing near ditches and drains, sewage outfalls, and the mouths of rivers and creeks. This is where the highest concentration of contaminants will be.

5. Trust your nose. If the water looks or smells bad don’t go swimming. If the water is milky or murky, covered in scum or algae, smells of sewage or strongly of algae, don’t risk it.

6. Look for your toes. If you can’t see your kid’s toes when you are wading in the water, many health authorities warn you to stay away. You may step on something sharp or the water may be polluted.

7. Don’t copy other swimmers. Just because other people are swimming, it doesn’t mean the water is clean.

Photo by Laura Bittner

8. Rinse off. Many public beaches have showers. If you rinse your kids off when they are done swimming, it reduces the chances that they’ll take a rash or infection home with them.

9. Enjoy nature’s swimming holes! It can be scary thinking about risk to your child’s health, but open waters are often as clean or cleaner than swimming pools.

What risks does contact with contaminated water pose to my child’s health?

Contact with water contaminated with faecal bacteria can lead to disease, infection, and rashes.

Inhaling contaminated water can lead to respiratory illnesses, and infections in the eyes, ears, and nose. Bacteria can enter the body through opening, such as ear, nose, eyes, and through cuts and scrapes in the skin. Skin contact can cause rashes and other skin problems.

Gastrointestinal infections are typically caused by swallowing contaminated water and can lead to nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting.

More serious diseases and illnesses may also be contracted in heavily polluted waters, including typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and dysentery.

Getting sick from swimming or playing in the water is never fun and can be downright scary. Help keep your kids safe and avoid this kind of negative experience by learning about the water quality before you get to the beach.

Where can I find water quality information?

The first thing to do is to find out if the site you are visiting is monitored for water quality.
Government agencies, health units, local jurisdictions, and environmental organizations manage water quality monitoring programs.

If water quality information is available check whether or not a water quality advisory or beach closure has been issued before you head to the beach (this will also help you avoid the disappointment of arriving to a closed or posted swimming site). Get used to doing this. You should check the water quality before every outing.

Swim Guide is one of the places you can go to find water quality information. Swim Guide provides daily water quality information for over 7,000 beaches in Canada, the US, and Baja California.

Your local public or environmental health unit can also let you know if the beach you are visiting is monitored and whether the water has met water quality standards. Lifeguards typically have this information as well.

It is also important to get into the habit of looking around for advisory flags, signs, or postings about water quality when you get to the beach or lake. And look carefully; Many beaches and lakes have poor signage.

What are water quality standards and are they relevant for my child?

When it comes to understanding how contaminants in the water can affect your infant or young child we first need to give some context to water quality standards.

Testing standards are set for a healthy adult population which means the risk of infection from contact with contaminated water is higher for certain members of the population.

Along with expectant mothers, the elderly, tourists, and those with compromised immune systems, children, especially infants and young children, are more likely to suffer infections (ear, nose, throat, skin, gastrointestinal) from contact with sand and water that exceed water quality standards.

Photo by Richard Leeming

Water quality is determined by water concentrations of faecal contamination. Fresh water is usually tested for Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and marine water is usually tested for enterococci bacteria and faecal coliforms.

Government bodies set water quality standards.

Fresh water quality standards in Canada are set to a maximum geometric mean concentration (minimum of five samples) of ≤ 200 E. coli/100ml and a single-sample maximum concentration of ≤ 400 E. coli/100 mL. Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment set the water quality standard at 100 E. coli per 100 millilitres of water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a maximum geometric mean of 126 E coli/100 mL and a single sample maximum concentration of 235/100 mL.

Marine (salt) water quality standards in Canada as set to a maximum geometric mean concentration (minimum of five samples) of ≤ 200 E. coli/100 mL and a single-sample maximum concentration of ≤ 400 E. coli/100 mL

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a maximum geometric mean of 33 enterococci/100 mL and a single sample maximum concentration of 62/100 mL as a quality threshold for marine water.

When a beach is posted with an advisory it means that there is an elevated risk of infection. Even though the beach is not closed it is best to avoid the water. Remember, children and infants are most at risk for infection so they are more likely than the rest of the population to get sick when there is an advisory.

Testing frequency can range from daily to monthly, but the majority of recreational swimming sites are tested weekly. It takes between 24 to 48 hours for results to be published.

Samples are typically taken at adult chest deep, 1.2 to 1.5 meters. While new guidelines encourage samples to be taken at ankle or knee depth, which is where most of the bathers and contaminants are concentrated, these are not yet regulations and local authorities have the final say as to the depth and location of samples.

What about the sand?

Sand is awesome. Babies and kids sure do love to eat it, bury themselves (and us) in it, dig into it, build castles with it, and, of course, throw it at each other.

Photo by Leandro Muller

Sand contact is typically still allowed when a beach is closed or under advisory. But pathogens can persist in sand longer than in water.

Samples are rarely taken at the water’s edge or from the sand,where the water meets the beach, and where most young children play.

When a beach or lake is under advisory or closed, it is best to avoid contact with the sand.

Where is the best place to enter the water or sit on the shore ?

The degree of risk of swimming or water contact varies on a beach. Therefore, when assessing a beach for the sake of preventing illnesses associated with water quality, the entire beach, not just the water, needs to be looked at.

Are there pipes or creeks draining into the water? Is there a wastewater treatment plant or other industry generating wastewater nearby? Are there parks or restrooms nearby? What parts of the landscape could be sending down contaminated stormwater runoff?

Look for the spot that is furthest away from these possible sources of pollution and contamination.

My kids are in the water and I just noticed there is an advisory. What do I do?

The first thing to do is get your family out of the water. Wash everyone down with warm soapy water as soon as possible.

It is important that you immediately contact a health professional AND the District Health Unit about your children’s condition.

Following up with your local health department about your concerns may help to ensure better advisory posting procedures.

Other water quality considerations

There are number of conditions that can afflict beach-goers that aren’t tested for by most water quality monitoring agencies.

Swimmer’s Itch, also called cercarial dermatitis, is a skin rash caused by allergic reaction to certain microscopic parasites called schistosomes released from infected snails into fresh and salt water.

Blue-green algae have the potential to produce toxins or skin irritants. Exposure can cause headaches, fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, and mucous membrane irritation.

Check with your health unit to see if anyone has reported algae-blooms, swimmer’s itch, or other health concerns from water.

Should I just avoid the beach and take my kids to the pool?

Definitely not. If you know the quality of the water where your kids are playing and swimming you will help them avoid infection. Get informed, not turned off.

It is a privilege for you and your children to spend time together at the beach. Kids need and crave places where they can access water and immerse themselves in nature. It is very important that children have the opportunity to connect with their watershed.

Photo by vastateparksstaff on Flickr

Exposure to nature helps you bond with your kids, and helps them to alleviate stress. It improves their cognitive abilities, too.

If your local swimming holes are constantly posted with advisories and closures, don’t turn your back on the beach. Get your family involved in bringing attention to these environmental issues and support restoration and protection initiatives.

This post originally appeared in 2014. 

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