Beach-goers are advised not to swim at Willows Beach in the municipality of Oak Bay in Victoria due to a record-breaking level of fecal bacteria found in a routine water sample.
On Thursday, Island Health issued an advisory after an Aug. 14 test found 4,400 enterococci bacteria present in a 100-millilitre water sample, about 3.5 ounces.
An advisory can be issued if a test exceeds 70 enterococci per 100-millilitre sample, Island Health said in an email.
The number blew the previous June 2016 record (180 enterococci bacteria per 100-millilitre sample) out of the water.
Island Health said the water “may be unsafe for recreational water activities such as swimming,” and that water contamination “increases the risk of illness to the public.”
The hazard? Poop.
How health authorities test the water
Health authorities in B.C. follow federal guidelines to check for water safety.
Vancouver Coastal Health says it follows the Health Canada guideline on how to test for poop at popular swimming spots, published in February. Island Health says it follows the Health Canada guideline on how to test popular swimming spots for a wider selection of hazards, like litter and swimmer’s itch, published in April 2012.
The guidelines outline how to test popular swimming spots for pathogens from sewage, wastewater from storm drains, stormwater runoff from agricultural or urban areas, wild or domesticated animals and “fecal shedding by swimmers.”
Tests check for viruses, bacteria and parasitic protozoa, or single-celled organisms that can make you sick.
The fecal-focused Health Canada guideline recommends testing for enterococcus or E. coli because if these fecal bacteria are showing up in high numbers, there are likely other bacteria in the water that can negatively impact your health.
Island Health says it tests salt water beaches for enterococcus, a bacteria found in the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and Vancouver Coastal Health checks swimming waters for high levels of E. coli.
High counts in Bowen Island, English Bay, False Creek
There are many ways swimming in contaminated water can affect your health.
Vancouver Coastal Health told The Tyee that swimming in contaminated water can increase your risk of gastrointestinal illnesses and skin and eye infections. People who swim in waters with unsafe levels of E. coli or enterococci may experience watery diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, mild fever, ear infection, sore throat or wound infection.
Vancouver Coastal Health routinely publishes its test results on its website, so you can check water quality before heading to the beach. Island Health also publishes routine samples on its website.
When two back-to-back tests of 100 millilitre samples from a single area have more than 400 E. coli in them, or when the average is more than 200, Vancouver Coastal Health will issue an advisory recommending people avoid swimming. When a single test has more than 70 enterococci per 100 millilitre test, Island Health will issue an advisory.
In early August, a single test of English Bay beach water found 2,909 E. coli in 100 millilitres. Currently the only beach with an advisory in Vancouver Coastal Health is Sandy Beach on Bowen Island, with E.coli counts spiking in late July with 2,300 and decreasing but still testing at 1,035 to 215 as of Aug. 15, depending on which end of the beach you’re at.
False Creek also had high counts of E. coli last week, with some parts of the inlet testing at 5,475 E. coli per 100 millilitres, which is pretty standard for the summer.
But as dangerous as it may be, it also likely won’t kill you.
Don’t swim for two days after heavy rainfall
I’ve seen underwater photographer Fernando Lessa throw on a mask and jump into the water off the Vancouver wharf in the middle of summer.
The Tyee caught up with Lessa by email earlier this summer while he was in Brazil to ask about how he navigates this potential workplace hazard.
Lessa says he’s aware of the contamination and works to calculate his own safety every time he’s in the water. He avoids contaminated areas whenever possible, works to dive during cooler seasons when E. coli counts are lower, limits his exposure or the amount of time he spends underwater and closely monitors his health.
He says he doesn’t recommend people grab their swimsuits and dive into False Creek — but adds if anyone has gone swimming in the tropics they’ve likely been exposed to similar bacteria levels.
“False Creek has at least the same E. coli levels as places that most people go to spend their holidays,” he says. “Like the Caribbean, Mexico, Asia or Brazil. The difference is that they are not aware and they enjoy it no problem.”
Rather than plug your nose or ignore the problem, Vancouver Coastal Health has some practical advice for how to stay safe while swimming. Don’t swallow ocean water, stay out of the water if you’ve got an open cut or wound, don’t swim for two days after heavy rainfall or in murky water and stay out of the ocean if you’re currently sick (no pooping in the water).
After swimming in the ocean, wash your hands and body with soap and water. Clean any cuts or scrapes you may have and dry out your ears. Wash your swimsuit too.
While it’s good advice to listen to health authorities when a beach gets closed, the water’s just fine the rest of the time.
At least that was the message from former Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt on a sunny day in July 1985.
Harcourt wanted to show Vancouverites he wasn’t afraid of swimming in the ocean. Once the ocean’s “fecal contamination” levels were within health guidelines the beach was a great place to swim, he said, according to articles that ran in the Vancouver Sun and Province.
So he grabbed some trunks and spent 20 minutes splashing in the shallows with his son — and even returned to the water so some camera crews who showed up late could get a shot.
We shouldn’t ignore potentially polluted waters, Lessa says.
“I think it’s [important] that people understand that False Creek and surrounding waters are not open-air sewage, but places that are alive and that can still be enjoyed in many ways, like paddling,” Lessa says.
When we collectively label places as dirty we turn our backs on them and this takes pressure off politicians to fix sewage and pollution issues, he says, adding urban areas can always be cleaned up and made more accessible.
“The threat for nature is not garbage or sewage, since those can be fixed. The real danger is ignorance,” he says.
Michelle Gamage, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee