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Great Lakes Article:

Beach visitors don't believe lake water safe
But seven beaches qualify to fly Blue Flag, symbol of safety awarded internationally
By Mary Nersessian
The Globe and Mail
Published July 1, 2004


Seven of Toronto's 14 beaches were lauded yesterday after qualifying for Blue Flag eco-labels, awarded to clean beaches around the world. The flags are to fly next year.

But skeptical Torontonians remain hesitant about taking the plunge, no matter how clean they are told the water is.

At Cherry Beach yesterday, when the sun was brightest at about 1 p.m., the sand was untouched save for light crisscrosses of seagull footprints and a random scattering of sunbathers. Some people waded in the ankle-deep water, but the only movement off the beach was the swoop of birds hunting for food.

"This is as far as she's going in," Toronto resident Anne McHerron said, indicating her nine-year-old daughter, Hanna, as she waded in the water up to her ankles.

"Normally, we wouldn't even go in this far, but she has no open sores," Ms. McHerron said. "She'll be hosed down when we get home," she added with a laugh.

On the list announced by the City of Toronto and the non-profit group Environmental Defence Canada, Cherry Beach leads in safety, followed by Hanlan's Point Beach, Ward's Island Beach, Woodbine Ashbridges Bay Beach, Balmy Beach Park, Centre Island Beach and Beaches Park.

About 2,900 beaches and marinas in Europe and South Africa have been flagged as safe this year by the Foundation for Environmental Education, including more than 500 in Spain, more than 300 in France and just under 400 in Greece. The campaign was limited to Europe until 2001.

The City of Toronto, the first North American city to seek certification, can apply on behalf of the beaches because they were open for safe swimming at least 80 per cent of the season last year.

Cherry Beach was safe for 98 per cent of last summer, and Beaches Park was safe 82 per cent of the time.

"It's hard to believe after what we know," said Ms. McHerron, who lives along the waterfront and has seen syringes, pill containers "and tampon casings galore."

Cheryl Chanter called Cherry Beach the best-kept secret in Toronto and visits two to three times a week. But she will not enter the water. "It's polluted."

She pointed to colonies of birds carpeting the shoreline that drop mounds of "bird poop" into the lake, and sees needles, condoms and underwear wash up.

"Otherwise, it's kept pretty clean. But I wouldn't put my mouth in there," she added.

"Our city beaches are fine, given the fact that they are situated in a city with a high population," said Lewis Molot, professor of environmental studies at York University. "You are not going to get pristine beaches."

Jason Clarke, a St. Lawrence Co-op Daycare Inc. employee, was supervising a group of children at the beach.

"We were told it's safe to swim," he said. But having grown up in Toronto, he said he was shocked to hear the water described as clean.

He rejected the notion when asked whether he would take a dip. "No. I have that phobia; I won't swim in Lake Ontario."

Margo Richards allowed Ahneen, her Labrador retriever-border collie, to scamper by the water's edge. Ms. Richards took an impromptu dip once when she fell from a boat while sailing. "It's surprisingly refreshing," she said of the lake.

The City of Toronto's general manager of water and wastewater service, Mike Price, said as much after he swam, head submerged, during a news conference yesterday where he announced that the city is eligible to apply for the Blue Flag labels.

"It was a little on the cool side, but otherwise it was very nice," Mr. Price said. "It was typical of what you would find in any lake in cottage country. . . . It's a freshwater lake, just like swimming at your cottage."

*

Pollution concerns

Q: Why are the beaches polluted?

A: Aging sewer system and storm drains are to blame. Water from heavy rainfalls and spring thaws mixes with sewage in the combined wastewater sewers.

Q: Is the water safe for children?

A: As long as parents heed the beach signs warning people to stay away when bacterial levels are high, "there shouldn't be an increased risk," pediatrician Jeff Weisbrot said.

Q: What about Rover?

A: "If the public-health department deems it healthy for humans to swim, I don't see any reason for dogs not to swim," said Mark Dilworth, a veterinarian at the Beaches Animal Hospital. But dogs should keep out of the water if they are prone to ear or skin infections.

Q: What are the dangers of exposure to unsafe water?

A: High levels of E. coli bacteria from animal and human waste may lead to ear, nose and throat infections, stomach upset, skin rashes and diarrhea, according to Toronto Public Health. Children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems are especially at risk.

Q: When does the City of Toronto post signs warning that swimming should be avoided?

A: Water samples are taken daily at each of the 14 beaches, from June until the end of August, and are tested for bacterial contamination at provincial laboratories. If E. coli levels are higher than 100 counts per 100 millilitres, warning signs are posted. The sign is removed only if bacterial counts are under 100 counts per 100 millilitres for two consecutive days.

Q: Where can I find information on safe swimming sites in Toronto?

A: Visit http://www.city.toronto.on.ca/beach/index.htm.

Q: Where can I check past bacterial levels for Toronto's beaches?A: Visit http://www.torontobeach.ca and click on Toronto's Beaches.

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