Swimming in Lake Ontario at one of Toronto's beaches? Gross. Gunk, poop, toxins, right? Monsters maybe? Can't remember a time in my adult life when I didn't think this way.
Well, apparently not! Turns out there are no dangers as long as you stick to beaches with Blue Flags and/or check the Waterkeeper's Swim Guide. (I guess it also helps if you know how to swim.)
"But what about heavy metals and dioxin?" asks a friend. Not a problem. There are lampreys, of course, and those buggers are disgusting. But they won't snack on you if you're not cold-blooded.
What the experts say
"The Blue Flag Program measures beaches based on 32 criteria covering water quality, environmental management and education, safety and services. Our standard is that bathing water cannot exceed 100 cfu (colony-forming units) of E. coli per 100 ml, the same standard as Ontario. Heavy metals are a concern when eating fish; you won't get contaminated swimming in them. Beach E. coli come from goose poop; people feed them bread, but their bodies aren't made for wheat. Birds and dogs are the main sources of E. coli. It's sad that Torontonians don't realize what we have along the water."
AIDAN GROVE-WHITE, water programs, Environmental Defence, Toronto
"Lake Ontario is fit for swimming, period. Some pipes or discharges into the lake make it unfit in certain areas. You might be uneasy about PCBs, pharmaceuticals or other chemicals and tritium from nuclear power plants released into the water, but those aren't risks to recreational use. When swimming, the number-one worry is bacteria. There's not a lot [the city] can do about filtering out pharmaceuticals, chemicals and metals. We're consuming huge amounts of these [in drinking water]; that's another issue. We don't want people to become disconnected from public beaches. Dioxins and furans are a concern when consuming fish, not when swimming."
MARK MATTSON, president, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Toronto
"People should be encouraged to swim in Lake Ontario. It's good water overall. There are areas of concern when there is pollution or sewage runoff. Dioxin is persistent, but unless you're swimming immediately downstream from a plant polluting with it, the levels shouldn't be discouraging. Don't swim immediately after it rains. Most of the sewage capacity in municipalities all around the Great Lakes is inadequate. Storm water overwhelms sewage capacity and managers open the floodgates. If the environmentalists are not screaming that the sky is falling, the sky is not falling."
DEREK STACK, executive director, Great Lakes United, Ottawa
"In studies of Chicago beaches, we found E. coli levels in the sand were many times higher than in the adjoining water. This is derived from seagulls, algae that ends up on the beach and the growth of the bacteria itself within the sand. E. coli itself is not considered a pathogen except for one or two strains that are rare in the environment. E. coli is an indicator of sewage and pathogens, mostly viruses causing stomach flu, earaches, and eye infections, which have been associated with the presence of E. coli bacteria. No one has looked at any risk associated with E. coli in the sand."
RICHARD WHITMAN, chief of the Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station, Porter, Indiana