Digital Digest: The Debate
June 19, 1998
NB: The conversion of this document to a digital format may have introduced errors. To see the document in its original form, click here.
(This digital debate accompanied the reprint, in the Reader’s Digest, of “Bring Back Our Beaches,” by Elizabeth Brubaker.)
Public health authorities routinely close, or “post,” beaches when high levels of bacteria contaminate bordering waters, scaring off would-be swimmers with signs typically reading: “Warning. Polluted waters. Swim at your own risk.” During the summer of 1996, Toronto Public Health Services posted beaches on the city’s west side three quarters of the time. Some years the department has warned swimmers away for virtually the entire summer. Recent years have also seen closings elsewhere along the Great Lakes shoreline, from Thunder Bay to the St. Lawrence River. In the nation’s capital, The Ottawa Citizen has described BritanniaBeach on the Ottawa River as “a giant toilet that doesn’t always flush.”
Even coastal cities where ocean temperatures, tidal and wave action, and the sheer volume of water might be expected to moderate pollution aren’t spared. A number of Maritime communities flush their toilets directly into their harbours. Halifax and Dartmouth produce more than half of the region’s untreated sewage, discharging into HalifaxHarbouralmost 68 million cubic metres a year from their four sewer sheds and those of several other nearby municipalities. On the West Coast, authorities post four Richmond beaches year round. Temporary postings, far more common, have closed beaches in White Rock, New Westminster, Nanaimo and other communities.
Sewage pollution has transformed city beaches into sources of sickness, and not just of skin, eye, ear, nose and throat infections. Salmonella and shigella, bacteria common in sewage, cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems. Bacteria in sewage can also cause tuberculosis, cholera and typhoid fever, while viruses can cause hepatitis, meningitis, polio and a host of other illnesses. While sewage treatment and the monitoring of beaches have prevented the sewage pathogens from causing epidemics, they do not prevent individual infections. A 1980 study of typical Ontario beaches found that 70 of every 1,000 swimmers had become ill within ten days of swimming, compared with 30 of every 1,000 nonswimmers. Health Canada predicts between ten and 20 of every 1,000 swimmers will get sick in waters that meet its guidelines for cleanliness.
Those in charge of enforcing our laws behave as if those laws simply don’t exist. Neither Nova Scotia nor Quebec has ever prosecuted a polluting sewage plant. In Ontario you could count the prosecutions on one hand. Our governments’ reluctance to curb sewage pollution is hardly surprising – they would have to fund many of the required improvements. A report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy estimated that Canada will need to invest between $38 billion and $49 billion just to maintain its existing water and sewage infrastructure. Perhaps the solution lies in paying a fair price for water-related services. We pay less for water and sewage treatment than do citizens in any other industrialized country. Our prices don’t even begin to cover the costs of our services, let alone the costs of environmental damage.
What do you think of the state of Canada’s beaches? Would you be willing to pay more for water-related services in order to cover the costs of cleaning up sewage pollution? Post your comments using the submission box below. They may be selected for inclusion in a future issue of Reader’s Digest magazine.