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The Environment-Beach program provides a false sense of security to swimmers


Montreal, June 28, 2019 – The Fondation Rivières considers the Environment-Beach program voluntary monitoring of the quality of bathing water as being very deficient, even dangerous, for the safety of bathers. This program does not take into account the risks associated with the presence of sources of contamination, it allows excessive delays in obtaining results and its optional membership allows some people to avoid water sampling. In addition, it does not respect international standards, the website is confusing and it generates unjustified costs.

These are the main elements that motivated the Fondation Rivières to write to the Minister of the Environment, Mr. Benoit Charette, to ask him to thoroughly review this program.

Voluntary participation

The current program governs beach sampling and public dissemination of bacteriological quality analysis results with a media advisory. But it only concerns beaches registered on a voluntary basis of participation. This is how the number of participating beaches fell from 425 in the mid-1990s to just 242 in 2018.

Let us also specify that article 83 of the Environmental Quality Act (CQLR c Q-2) and section 53 of Regulations on safety in public baths (RLRQ c B-1.1, r 11) both mention the obligation to close a swimming area if a threat to public health is noted. However, in these two documents there is no regulatory requirement for monitoring bathing water. A beach can thus be open to the public without monitoring of bacteriological quality ever being carried out for this site. Beach operators can thus choose, at any time, to stop monitoring bathing water if a deterioration in bacteriological quality is noted and they wish to continue their activities. The public should be able to choose whether or not to visit a beach, on a well-informed basis, regardless of location.

This current program still led to 23 closure episodes for 17 different beaches in 2018 and 29 closure episodes for 23 beaches in 2017. In order to ensure public safety, participation in the Environnement-Beach program should be mandatory for all public, municipal and private beaches in Quebec.

Confused interpretation

Beach ratings (A, B, C or D) should never be taken by the public as an assurance of safety when visiting the beach. This is only a general indicator based on less than five samples per summer, and, moreover, presents the result of samples taken more than 24 hours ago. However, the wording of the Environnement-Plage website indicates that the Program aims to “ allow the population to enjoy these places, fully and peacefully ". However, given the very long delay of two to five weeks between sampling and the variety of sources of pollution, this wording induces a false sense of security. This wording must be revised to reflect the real risks and usual precautions during swimming activities.

International procedures

Unlike the guides produced by Health Canada, there USEPA. and theWHO, most recent Program Application Guide recommends, in two lines (see p.3), to conduct a Environmental Safety and Health Survey (ESHM) before each swimming season, without providing any reference or specific instructions on how to carry out a Health survey. However, it would be important to provide more information on the subject than simple wishful thinking, since such an investigation would allow, according to Health Canada:

  • to identify the fundamental characteristics of recreational waters;
  • to detect any possible source of fecal contamination;
  • to highlight any other potential danger to water quality, whether of a physical, chemical or biological nature, or the sources of such a danger, likely to represent a risk for users of recreational waters;
  • evaluate the effectiveness of monitoring programs and risk management measures in force.

A ESHM would therefore make it possible to identify, for any given beach, its potential risks for the public, avenues for improvement for its safe use and ultimately, to monitor the improvement of the control carried out. Currently, the Environment-Beach program only considers the bacteriological quality of bathing water, without considering the factors which have an influence on this quality. Identifying and taking into account factors that could cause a deterioration in the quality of bathing water during use, such as the density of birds or dogs on the site, rainwater runoff or the presence of overflows. , would allow better preventive control. The notion ofEnvironmental safety and health survey should be introduced into the Environment-Beach Program in order to improve the scope of the monitoring carried out and, possibly, to put in place additional indicators for monitoring the quality of bathing water.

Sewage overflows

 Finally, among the main point sources of pollution that can affect the bacteriological quality of bathing water, wastewater overflows are among the most significant in terms of risk to human health. As is currently done by city of Kingston in Ontario, overflow alerts, provided publicly by municipal administrations using telemetry devices, would better protect users. With live monitoring of occurrences of wastewater overflows from structures identified as part of a ESHM, preventive beach closures would be carried out on a much shorter time scale and representative of the risks than the Program in its current form allows. A live alert system for overflows should be put in place to, among other things, allow better control of the beaches.

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For informations :

Alain Saladzius
514 924-2013

Photo: Todd Quackenbush/Unsplash


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