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How safe are Vancouver's beach waters? An expert weighs in

Many people feel at ease swimming in local waters -- particularly during the summer months. 
The Metro Vancouver weather forecast can have an impact on how safe local beach water is for swimming -- but it is far from the only thing that affects it.

Compared to numerous places across the globe, the water at Vancouver's beaches is considered pretty safe. In fact, many people feel at ease swimming in local waters -- particularly during the summer months. 

But there are several factors that make the city's beach water unhealthy for swimming and they don't all have to do with local policies. 

Dr. Juan José Alava researches ocean pollution and marine conservation at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In his native Ecuador, he saw how much human behaviour had damaged the local marine environment in his homeland.

"I am coming from a developing country with marine wildlife where I could see the pollution. I could see the emissions from the tuna canning and the plastic around the tourist areas," he told V.I.A. 

After he left Ecuador in 2002, he started a career in environmental toxicology, moving to remote locations around the world and then settling in Vancouver.

Environmental damage from the Britannia Copper Mine 

While Metro Vancouver has several strict environmental standards in place, that wasn't always the case.

The area around the Britannia Mine, located on Highway 99 near Squamish, used to be one of the most contaminated places in the world. It started production in 1904 and was the largest copper mine in the British Empire, but closed in 1974.

Although Metro Vancouver has enacted several measures to keep its waters clean, the sediment at the bottom of the ocean carries pollution, even from sites like the mine, which has been closed for nearly 50 years.

When the mine was at its peak production, areas surrounding it suffered losses that hung around for decades, including in the local groundwater, creeks, and the waters of nearby Howe Sound. The pollution was caused by Acid Rock Drainage (ARD), which occurs when "metal sulphides such as pyrite are exposed to air and water," according to the Britannia Mine Museum. 

Thankfully, bioremediation policies have helped to rectify damage caused by the mine and the water can now be safely discharged into Howe Sound.

That's why preventing more pollution is so vital, Alava noted, since removing waste and chemicals from the ocean is an uphill battle. Not only do our waters face local threats, but they also continue to see waste and toxins from around the globe. 

Microplastics circulate around the world, arriving in B.C. from places as far as Antarctica. Large pieces of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan continue to show up on local shores to this day. The Japanese government estimated that roughly 1.5 million tonnes of tsunami-generated debris was floating in the Pacific Ocean as of March 2012. This area is referred to as the “North Pacific Garbage Patch" and can potentially act as a vector for the transfer of invasive species to the coastal waters of British Columbia, according to a report from the Fisheries and Oceans Canada's (DFO) Ocean Sciences Division (OSD).

Since oceans are interconnected, it behooves governments worldwide to work on a global plan rather than only focusing on local measures, Alava emphasizes. 

How does Vancouver's ocean water measure up to other places around the world?

While it is difficult to give Vancouver's shores an official score or assign them a specific ranking, Alava likens local waters to those in the San Francisco Bay Area, where officials have enacted some related policies and the region has a similar environmental history. 

In contrast, the Gulf of Guayaquil in Alava's native Ecuador, continues to experience tremendous environmental damage from banana farming, forestation, and the tuna processing facilities.

People living in countries like Brazil, India, and Cambodia may experience health issues from going into the water on some beaches where there are no policies in place to warn people about swimming in the water. 

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), on the other hand, releases an advisory when the water at public swimming places reaches unsafe levels due to the presence of E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in the intestinal tract of animals and humans. High counts of E. coli in recreational water may increase the chances of gastrointestinal, and upper respiratory illnesses, and skin/eye infections.  

When the water reaches an unsafe level -- a result reaches 235 E.coli/100 mL -- the health authority issues a warning. 

Additionally, VCH offers a robust portal of information to help the public be aware of water quality issues at Vancouver's beaches. Beach water sampling takes place during the warmer months, kicking off each year in April in time to report for the May Long weekend. 

Invisible pollution in Metro Vancouver water

Metro Vancouver has five wastewater treatment plants that process over 1 billion litres of wastewater (or sewage) daily. There are two main treatments, including a primary one that removes floating materials or ones that have settled at the bottom, and a secondary one that uses "biological processes to remove 90 per cent or more of materials, including small suspended solids and soluble organic materials."

But Alava cautions that one of the most harmful pollutants may go undetected. 

Pharmaceutical contamination and other personal care products are considered "invisible pollution" since their presence may go unnoticed in the water. What's more, they often evade wastewater treatment processes. 

"There are many chemicals that are used in our households that get dumped down the sink and end up in our wastewater treatment plant," Alava explained, adding that he believes a third wastewater treatment is required to capture things like pharmaceuticals. 

The National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCCID) says Canada's current treatment plants don't completely remove pharmaceutical residues, which end up in oceans, water supplies, and soil.

"The accumulation of antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents in the environment can contribute to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the constant evolutionary modification in viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens against naturally occurring and synthetic antibiotics, antivirals, and antifungals," the NCCID outlines in a report

According to data from up to 2021, roughly 20,000 hospitalized patients in Canada were developing a drug-resistant infection annually, resulting in about $50 million in medical costs. 

The Metro Vancouver weather and water safety

Metro Vancouver weather also affects how safe it is for people to swim in the ocean. Since many popular beaches are located beside urban areas, runoff from major rainfall events can cause dangerous substances to move into the water, including bacteria and chemicals. In general, you should wait at least a couple of days before going into the water after significant rainfall.

"When there is a lot of rain, all the river runoff will bring a lot of chemical runoff, and metals, and the beaches are close to livestock areas, which is a source of E. coli," Alava explained. 

Further, microplastics are found on shores around the world and here in Vancouver, resulting in a range of negative environmental and health consequences. These tiny particles end up in human tissue, including in blood, the liver, and even in breast milk. Marine mammals also suffer health ramifications from ingesting the minuscule particles. 

Since reversing the effects of pollution creates so many challenges, Alvara underscores that "prevention is more important than a solution" and decision-makers need to enact policies that reflect this belief. 

Vancouver has instated several policies to reduce pollution and protect marine life. The Vancouver Plan presents a vision to "restore ecological health," using Green Rainwater Infrastructure that "uses naturally absorbent soil and plants that work with built infrastructure like streets to reduce the amount of polluted rainwater entering our pipe system and contributing to combined sewer overflows (CSO’s)," the City told V.I.A. 

The City is also working on the Healthy Waters Plan, which is a long-range sewage and rainwater management plan meant to reduce pollution to marine environments that sometimes receive excess rainwater runoff and sewage; these places include the Burrard Inlet, the Fraser River, and False Creek.