Beach visitors don't believe lake water
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.