Guidelines for understanding and managing risks in recreational waters: Overview

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Organization: Health Canada

Date published: March 2023

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The Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality comprise multiple guideline technical documents that consider the various factors that could interfere with the safety of recreational waters from a human health perspective. This includes technical documents on understanding and managing risks in recreational waters; fecal indicator organisms; microbiological sampling and analysis; cyanobacteria and their toxins; physical, aesthetic and chemical characteristics; microbiological pathogens and other biological hazards. These documents provide guideline values for specific parameters used to monitor water quality hazards, and recommend science-based monitoring and risk management strategies.

Recreational waters are considered to be any natural fresh, marine or estuarine bodies of water that are used for recreational purposes. This includes lakes, rivers and human-made systems (for example, stormwater ponds, artificial lakes) that are filled with untreated natural waters. Jurisdictions may choose to apply these guidelines to other natural waters for which limited treatment is applied (for example, short-term use of disinfection for an athletic event). Applying the guidelines in these scenarios should be done with caution. Some disease-causing microorganisms (for example, protozoan pathogens) are more difficult to disinfect than fecal indicator organisms and may still be present even if disinfection has reduced the fecal indicators to acceptable levels.

Recreational activities that could present a human health risk through intentional or incidental immersion and ingestion include primary contact activities (for example, swimming, bathing, wading, windsurfing and waterskiing) and secondary contact activities (for example, canoeing, boating or fishing).

Each guideline technical document has been established based on current, published scientific research related to health effects, aesthetic effects and beach management considerations. The responsibility for recreational water quality generally falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, and therefore the policies and approaches, as well as the resulting management decisions, may vary between jurisdictions. The guideline technical documents are intended to guide decisions by provincial, territorial and local authorities that are responsible for the management of recreational waters. For a complete list of the guideline technical documents available, please refer to the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality summary document (in publication).

Understanding and managing risks in recreational waters

The authority charged with the day-to-day oversight of the recreational water area generally has the most comprehensive knowledge of the recreational area and is therefore in the best position to take the actions necessary to ensure safe water recreation. The risk management information in this document is more pertinent to managed beaches (either public or private). However, the same risk management principles can be applied to any natural water area that has been designated as a recreational area. Effective recreational water management requires the cooperation of all stakeholders, including beach operators, service providers, governments, local businesses and industry, as well as users. All stakeholders are expected to become informed about their roles and responsibilities in the management of recreational waters.

The best strategy for protecting public health from risks associated with recreational waters is a preventive risk management approach that focuses on the identification and control of water quality hazards and their associated risks, combined with routine microbial water quality assessments. Reactive management strategies that rely on microbial water quality monitoring alone are not sufficient to protect the health of recreational water users.

Risk management approach

A preventive risk management approach that incorporates procedures, actions and tools to collectively reduce the risk of human exposure to recreational water quality hazards is recognized by water quality professionals worldwide as the preferred approach to protecting public health. This approach is based on concepts that mirror those found in drinking water frameworks, such as the source-to-tap approach (CCME, 2004), and in drinking water management plans, such as water safety plans (WHO, 2004). Engaging in recreational water activities, regardless of whether it is swimming, splashing or other activities, will always involve some level of associated risk. The goal of a risk management approach is to make decisions that are based on an assessment of the possible health risks to recreational water users balanced against the significant benefits that recreational water activities provide in terms of health and enjoyment. The concepts of preventive risk management were at the heart of the recommendations for improved management of recreational waters proposed by an international panel of experts and published in the document that has come to be known as the "Annapolis Protocol" (WHO, 1999). Similarly, it is this approach that formed the basis for the management framework outlined in the Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments (WHO, 2003).

A preventive risk management approach succeeds by incorporating multiple areas of management (for example, source protection, hazard assessment and prioritization, monitoring, hazard control, communication, consultation and training), rather than focusing all efforts in a single area. Specific benefits include:

Figure 1 summarizes the risk management approach included in this guideline document. This information can be applied to any natural fresh, marine or estuarine bodies of water that have been designated as recreational areas. This includes lakes, rivers and human-made systems (for example, stormwater ponds, artificial lakes).

Figure 1: Overview of the risk management approach described in this document

Figure 1. guidelines-understanding-managing-risks-recreational-waters
Figure 1 - Text description

Figure 1 summarizes the risk management approach in this guideline document. The approach is based on assessing potential health risks and managing actions to protect public health.

Assessment of potential health risks looks at 3 things. The first is environmental health and safety surveys or EHSS. EHSS are the foundation of a risk management plan and are done annually before the operating season. Shorter ones are done throughout the operating season. The second item in risk assessment is water quality assessment. This includes monitoring plans developed from the EHSS. There can be routine or hazard monitoring, fecal source tracking studies and quantitative microbial risk assessment. The third part of risk assessment is looking at beach sand. Micro-organisms in beach sand can affect water quality and human health.

Management actions to protect public health also looks at 3 things. The first is protective models that can provide early warning of increased health risks. The second is beach management. This section in the document gives best practices to reduce risks in beach sands and recreational waters. The third thing is public awareness and communications, which deals with notifications about risks, usage restrictions and public health advice.

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