E. coli water sampling underway around Thunder Bay district

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit is sampling the city's three main beaches and surrounding district beaches, and is advising people to take caution when going for a dip.

Water quality is better around district beaches than city beaches, health inspector says

City of Thunder Bay's Chippewa main beach is one of the beaches with a permanent swimming advisory posted. (Pinterest)

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit has begun sampling the water in and around beaches in the city and region to test for water quality levels as the summer season is underway.

Public health officials, which sample the three main city beaches at Chippewa Park and Boulevard Lake, as well as 18 swimming spots around Thunder Bay, are testing for E. coli levels which can potentially be harmful for people who choose to swim.

"The three beaches in the city are permanently posted with an advisory just letting the public know the likelihood that the water has elevated levels of E. coli.," said Troy Sampson, a public health inspector at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit. "And this is based on the five years previous water quality tests."

Sampson said the signs are in place so people can decide for themselves if they want to swim at that beach.

Water sampling constant around city beaches

The health unit also samples other beaches, including those in rural, Thunder Bay-area communities like Neebing and Shuniah, as well as in other northwestern Ontario municipalities like Greenstone. 

Sampson said that, around the district beaches, they use temporary advisory signs because they rarely have elevated levels of E. coli.

"If water quality tests show elevated E. coli levels, a sign will be posted with a swimming advisory. That sign stays in place until the levels are no longer elevated," Sampson said.

Throughout the beach season, the health unit samples the city beaches once a week to adjust the percentage signs indicating the elevated levels of E. coli over the previous five years. The district beaches are tested once a month.

District beaches rarely show elevated E.coli levels

While there is permanent signage at the city beaches, Sampson said the levels at the city beaches are still quite low.

Boulevard beach has a 10 per cent sign, which means that over the last five years, ten per cent of those tests would have had elevated levels of E. coli, Sampson said. Chippewa's main beach is posted at 30 per cent, while the sandy beach is posted at 10 per cent.

In the past, the health unit would issue an advisory, resample during the same week, then rescind it. He said the process became redundant over the swimming season and public health officials felt people were not taking the advisory seriously. As a result, the permanent signage came into place.

Sampson said last year, there were zero swimming advisories issued for high levels of E. coli in the 18 district beaches the health unit oversees.

"Even going back ten years on our data, historically, our district beaches have always had low numbers of E. coli," he said.

Water quality levels important during swimming season

Sampson said it's important to note the risks of swimming in waters with elevated levels of the bacteria.

"High levels of E. coli does increase the risk of developing minor skin, eye, ear, nose and throat infections as well as gastrointestinal illness which could include stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea," said Sampson.

He said if you do choose to swim at the beaches, to be aware that the E. coli levels can be elevated 24 to 48 hours after heavy rainfall.

"Rain can carry bacteria from the street, parking lot or the shoreline and flush it into our beaches causing potential contamination," he explained. "So if you are going to swim, we always recommend avoiding swallowing the beach water at all times.

He said that natural factors like high winds and lots of sun can also determine the E. coli levels present in the water.

Taking precautions before a dip

Sampson also said that it's important to assume that swimmer's itch, a parasitic skin rash, is always present in the water. While the health unit does not test for it, Sampson said it's still important to be aware of the repercussions.

"It's a parasite that infects some birds or mammals, primarily duck, geese, seagulls and certain mammals such as raccoons," said Sampson. "These parasites ... are from infected snails [which get] into the water."

He advised toweling off and showering after swimming at a beach.

The district health unit will also be posting E. coli percentages and swimming advisories on its website.

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