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Toronto's Sunnyside Beach polluted

Bacteria-laden beaches, lakes choked with algae and fish contaminated by industrial waste: these have been symptoms of pollution in the Great Lakes since the late 1950s. With growing threats to drinking water, wildlife populations and human health, governments on both sides of the border took action to reverse the Lakes' decline in the 1970s. Today they supply water to one-third of all Canadians and one-seventh of all Americans. Under the watchful eyes of scientists and environmentalists, the Lakes are slowly becoming great again.

There's nothing more refreshing than a dip in the lake on a hot summer day, but not for Torontonians visiting the city's western beaches. Runoff from meat-packing plants up the Humber River flows right into Lake Ontario, and the water has been declared off-limits for the rest of the summer due to pollution. But swimmers won't have to swelter next year, according to CBC's Metro News: a new sewage disposal plant will be ready in 1960.
• The main reason beaches close is due to pollution from untreated sewage. E. coli, a bacterium present in animal and human waste, can cause illness, diarrhea and, in extreme cases, death.

• In the summer months Toronto's 14 beaches are tested daily for pollution from E. coli. If levels are unacceptably high, warnings are posted to keep swimmers out of the water.

• In July 2004 between seven and 11 of those 14 spots were considered unsafe for swimming.

• Before the 1950s, many cities and towns on the Great Lakes had inadequate or nonexistent facilities for processing wastewater. Sewage was often piped untreated into the nearest lake or river.

• The sewage disposal plant mentioned in this clip, the Humber Bay Treatment Plant, opened as planned in 1960. It has been expanded several times since and is the second-largest treatment plant in Toronto.

• Detroit was long regarded as the worst offender for sending sewage into the Great Lakes. At 1965 hearings into Lake Erie pollution held by the U.S. Public Health Service, experts slammed Detroit's "criminally inadequate" "museum-piece sewage-treatment system." (Source: William Ashworth, The Late, Great Lakes, 1986)

• Until 1972 when a U.S. federal law was passed, Detroit's sewage received only primary treatment. Solids and greases were separated from wastewater before it went back into Lake Erie.

• In the older parts of Toronto, the sewer system is combined. This means rainwater flowing from sewer grates travel through the same pipes as household waste. All material in combined sewers goes to treatment plants. After a heavy rain these sewers can overflow, sending untreated waste directly into the lake.

• In areas with separate storm drains and sanitary drains, household waste goes for treatment while storm runoff goes right into Lake Ontario.

• Sewage treatment, commonly called wastewater treatment, is a process designed to purify and decontaminate wastewater before it goes back into the lake. In Toronto, all waste that goes down the drain -- through households, businesses and sewer grates -- flows through underground pipes to the treatment plant. It goes through several steps that filter out solids, separate large particles, and remove organic matter through biological processes.

• Collected debris goes to a landfill, while solids that form during the settling process are further treated to reduce pathogens before being incinerated, sent to landfill or used in commercial fertilizers. Remaining water is treated with chlorine and ultraviolet disinfection. At this point the water is called final effluent, and it is channelled back into the body of water it came from.

Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Production Date: June 24, 1959
Guest(s): Jean Newman
Reporter: Frank Stalley
Duration: 2:38

Last updated: February 14, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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