New Brunswick’s beaches made the news this week due to poor public notice surrounding water quality problems at two of the province’s most popular beaches: Parlee Beach and Murray Beach.
This summer visitors to Parlee Beach and Murray Beach were not properly informed when the waters were not suitable for swimming, due to contamination from sewage. During the 2016 swim season Murray Beach failed to meet federal water quality single sample guidelines for marine water 26 times, and Parlee Beach failed to meet these standards on 10 occasions. Typically, when indicator bacteria exceeds public health standards a water quality advisory issued on multiple fronts in order to protect the public, especially children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable members of the population, from a heightened risk of contracting a waterborne illness.
The reason recreational water quality standards exist is to protect people from waterborne illnesses. Recreational water illnesses in untreated water, such as at marine and freshwater beaches, lakes, rivers, and swimming holes, may be caused by harmful microorganisms, or germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa). Sewage and polluted stormwater runoff are the biggest sources of water contamination that put the health of recreational water users at risk.
Swimming in contaminated water can lead to a number of illnesses and infections. Enteric illness (intestinal), diarrhea and vomiting, are the most frequent adverse health outcomes from contact with contaminated water. Skin rashes, eye and ear infections, respiratory problems are also common recreational water illnesses. More serious diseases, such as human adenovirus and flesh-eating disease, are also possible health outcomes from contact with contaminated water.
Recreational water illnesses are contracted by swallowing, inhaling spray from, and contact with contaminated water. You can read more here on illnesses contracted from recreational water.
There are approximately 60 beaches across the province that are showcased by New Brunswick’s Department of Tourism. However, the vast majority of these beaches are not monitored for recreational water quality and there is no provincial protocol for monitoring recreational water. Parlee Beach and Murray Beach used to be monitored by the Department of Health, but they are currently monitored by the Department of Tourism. While the Department of Tourism takes the water samples it falls onto the Department of Health to take action in protecting public health when water quality fails to meet health standards. The few beaches that are tested are graded based on a rating developed by the Department, rather than according to the federal Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality.
Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and toxic algae blooms are monitored and there is protocol in place.
New Brunswick is not alone in its lack of monitoring, and of a clear protocol for taking action to protect public health from recreational water issues. In fact, protocols for monitoring recreational water quality differs widely across Canada. Health Canada’s Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality provide a framework for provincial and local bodies responsible for the management of recreational waters.
Beach water quality assessment and monitoring practices vary between provinces and territories, and even within provinces and territories, between monitoring agencies. To date, the territories of Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon do not monitor swimming spots for recreational water quality. Nor does the province of Saskatchewan. Like New Brunswick, recreational water quality monitoring is limited to a handful of beaches on Prince Edward Island. Newfoundland and Labrador monitor their recreational water quality only in the case of an event, like an outbreak or a sewage spill.
Many of the Canadian provinces that do monitor recreational water quality use some variation of the federal guidelines. Some provinces currently have no regular monitoring or sampling programs for recreational water quality. Within certain provinces, different agencies use different monitoring guidelines and practices – even in the same watershed. Vast areas of certain provinces are completely unmonitored for recreational water quality.
The 2012 edition of the Guidelines reaffirms existing federal E. coli guidelines for primary contact recreation at freshwater beaches:
200 E. coli / 100 mL – geometric mean at least 5 samples
400 E. coli / 100 mL – single sample maximum
In marine recreational waters, enterococci is the most appropriate indicator of fecal contamination, with guidelines values as follows:
35 Enterococci / 100 mL – geometric mean at least 5 samples
70 Enterococci / 100 mL – single sample maximum
In addition, the 2012 Guidelines added new secondary contact guidelines, which should not exceed five times the value for primary contact:
1000 E. coli / 100 mL – geometric mean of at least 5 samples
175 Enterococci/ 100 mL – geometric mean of at least 5 samples
Guidelines for blue-green algae, also called “cyanobacteria,” are:
100,000 cells of cyanobacteria /mL
20 µg/L total microcystin (a toxin of cyanobacteria)
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