Media Release: Ministry of Health makes major changes to E. coli standard for public beaches without consulting Ontarians

Media Release


Joint media release of Swim Drink Fish and CELA

May 31 2018

TORONTO – Swim season has arrived in Ontario, and by June, water quality monitoring will be underway at many public beaches. The recreational water quality monitoring alerts the public about water contamination and many Ontarians rely on it to decide whether to swim.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care recently weakened the E. coli standard for assessing whether there is a health risk at our public beaches, but included a new single sample maximum reading. The Ministry failed to consult with the public prior to implementing this significant change to Ontario’s recreational water quality standard and what it would mean for public health and the environment.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), Environmental Defence, and Swim Drink Fish Canada made a formal request today that the Ministry post the change in E. coli standard on the environmental registry for public review and comment. The environmental registry is a website created under the Environmental Bill of Rights which requires the government to provide public input into decisions that could have a significant effect on the environment.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) is a non-profit, public interest organization established in 1970 to use existing laws to protect the environment and to advocate environmental law reforms.

Swim Drink Fish Canada is a Canadian charity that connects people with water.



“The best thing that people can do this summer is get out for a swim in the Great Lakes. The changes to the Ontario water quality standards means the public needs to be more informed than ever before when they head out to our lakes and rivers this summer. We want the best information possible for the public to protect their health from recreational water illnesses, so we urge the public to learn about the standards and the quality of the water where they love to swim.”

– Mark Mattson, President, Swim Drink Fish Canada

“The public should have a say in whether the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care should change the E.Coli standard for recreational waters intended to protect public health and the environment. The Environmental Bill of Rights is one of our key environmental laws and was created exactly for this purpose – to allow for the public to have input on government policies that can affect their health and the environment.”

– Jacqueline Wilson, Counsel, Canadian Environmental Law Association

Quick Facts

  • The new recreational water quality standard is a geometric mean concentration (minimum of five samples) of ≤ 200 E. coli / 100 mL, and a single-sample maximum concentration of ≤ 400 E. coli / 100 mL.
  • The previous standard was ≤ 100 E. coli/ 100 mL as a geometric mean.
  • The primary purpose of recreational water quality monitoring is the protection of public health against waterborne illnesses.
  • Ontario’s environment ministry conducted an extensive scientific review to establish the Ontario standards for recreational water in 1984 and concluded that E.coli was an appropriate indicator of the risk of gastroenteric disease for bathers.
  • Ontario’s standards were some of the most protective recreational water quality standards in the world.
  • A change from the pre-2018 Ontario standard requires an updated scientific review and a consideration of the public health implications of a new standard to ensure that recreational swimmers are being protected from risk.
  • The Ministry of Health and Long Term Care did not consult with the public on the 2018 changes to the threshold values made in the Operational Approaches for Recreational Water Guidelines, 2018.
  • According to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport, there are over 6.5 million beach visits a year in Ontario. Ontarians account for 89% of visits to the province’s beaches. In other words, nearly half of Ontarians visit a beach each summer.
  • Swimming in contaminated water can lead to a number of illnesses and infections. Enteric illness (intestinal), diarrhea, and vomiting are the most frequent adverse health outcomes from contact with contaminated water. Acute febrile respiratory illness (AFRI) along with skin rashes, eye and ear infections, and respiratory problems are also common recreational water illnesses. More serious diseases, such as human adenovirus, are also possible health outcomes from contact with contaminated water. There is evidence that recreational water users can contract serious and fatal diseases.

Additional Links


Omid Razavi

Communications and Marketing Manager

Swim Drink Fish Canada



Jacqueline Wilson


Canadian Environmental Law Association

1-416-960-2284 x 7213