New Brunswick

Water monitoring at Parlee Beach failed to meet Canadian guidelines

Water testing at New Brunswick's most popular beach destination, Parlee Beach, has failed to respect Canadian guidelines, allowing it to remain open to swimming on several days when it would otherwise have been closed this past summer.

Province's most popular beach uses N.B.-made rating system, with looser guidelines for beach closure

Parlee is the province's most popular beach, with hundreds of thousands visiting every summer. (Radio-Canada)

Water testing at New Brunswick's most popular beach destination, Parlee Beach, has failed to respect Canadian guidelines, allowing it to remain open to swimming on several days when it would otherwise have been closed this past summer.

Under the widely followed guidelines — which are used in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia — Parlee Beach would have been closed to swimming between Aug. 3 and Aug. 6, as well as between Aug. 16 and Aug. 21, because of the risk of illness.

That would be a total of 10 days during peak season at one of New Brunswick's iconic tourism destinations.

Canadian guidelines dictate a beach should be closed to swimmers if fecal bacteria levels reach a value above 70/100 ml of water on any day, until the next test shows values within acceptable limits.

Levels exceeded twice

Parlee exceeded those levels on Aug. 3 and was not tested again until Aug. 7. The level was above 70 again on Aug. 16 and the beach wasn't tested until Aug. 21.

If Canadian water guidelines were used, Parlee Beach would have been closed to swimmers between Aug. 3-6 and Aug. 16-21 in 2016 due to high fecal bacteria levels in the water. (CBC)
In contrast, the rating system used by the Department of Tourism at Parlee Beach only requires a beach to be closed to swimming in the case of an industrial or chemical spill, or a widespread communicable disease outbreak.

On those days where the bacteria count was high in August, the beach remained open to swimming and was instead given a "poor" rating, which according to the province's chief medical officer of health, meant children under six should have stayed out of the water.

The elderly, people with open skin lesions and people with weak immune systems also should not have been in the water.

No one should have put their head under the water either, because of the risk of eye, nose, mouth and ear infections.

Four signs posted at Parlee Beach during those days had a blue droplet next to the "poor" indicator.

There was a small pamphlet with a description of the rating taped to the sign. But at other entrances to the park, there was no indication of a problem.

During summer 2016, the water at Parlee Beach was rated poor four days in June, six days in July and 18 days in August.

Unique rating system

The water quality at Parlee Beach was rated poor 28 days during the summer tourism season of 2016. (CBC)
The current water rating system at Parlee Beach was introduced in the summer of 2001. It came after issues of water quality in Shediac Bay surfaced for the first time.

"Concerns had been raised about pollution, and about the environment, and the quality of the water at Parlee Beach," said Joan MacAlpine, who was minister of tourism at the time.

At the same time the index was developed, the responsibility of water monitoring was transferred from the department of health to tourism for Parlee Beach and Murray Beach, while the rest of the province's beaches remained under the authority of health.

"It was our park, it was our beach. We felt it would be wise to take it on," said MacAlpine.

System's origin a mystery

Two medical doctors with cottages near the beach recently raised the alarm about Parlee Beach's water-rating system and its failure to comply with Canadian guidelines.

In a 106-page letter to Premier Brian Gallant, Dr. Scott Mawdsley refers to the unique water monitoring as "odd" and "sordid," adding he has not been able to find any similar programs in North America or Europe.

But how the system was developed, why it differs from Canadian guidelines, is not clear.

Local MLA and Health Minister Victor Boudreau says he doesn't know the specifics of how the unique water-rating system in New Brunswick came to be. (CBC)
"I certainly wouldn't know the specifics of why is that," said Health Minister Victor Boudreau when questioned about the issue.

"But I'm sure the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health would be able to provide more details on that."

In an interview, Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health, said she did not know details of how the system was developed.

"I don't have all the background knowledge on that. There was a working group that was formed to address issues at that time, and that's where it was generated from," said Russell.

No province-wide strategy

The acting chief medical officer of health confirmed that Parlee, Murray and Aboiteau beaches are the only ones in this province to use this rating system.

According to the Canadian recreational water quality guidelines, a clear no swimming sign similar to this one should have been posted at Parlee Beach when bacteria levels exceeded acceptable limits. (Health Canada)
There is no New Brunswick-wide water quality strategy as is the case in some other provinces. Instead, it is up to whoever runs each beach to monitor the water quality.

But Russell said the water monitoring strategy may be reviewed moving forward.

"We're all very concerned about the public's health. Obviously we would like people to be able to protect themselves with whatever means possible," said Russell.

"We're taking this very seriously. And that's why we're putting the working group together."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.

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