A recent announcement that Recreation Bay Beach was to remain closed for the rest of the season due to an E.coli outbreak came only two days after the community was notified that it was safe to swim in it.
An initial press release announcing the outbreak was sent out on August 4. A follow-up was issued on August 16 that the water was again safe. This was followed by the most recent update on August 18 that the water would be closed for the remainder of the summer.
Though the Public Safety Division of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) confirmed that the water tested negative on August 17, members of the public who swam in the water during that time have concerns about potential infection due to the proximity to the positive E.coli result.
At least one individual has reported gastro-like symptoms following their swim.
In an August 23 email from the MCK, it was confirmed to The Eastern Door that there had been no reports of anyone getting sick following swimming in the Recreation Bay. However, an anonymous community member, who was at the beach on August 17, reported gastro-like symptoms following the swim.
“I got sick for like 12 hours,” the source explained. “I’m pretty sure it was E.coli because I was throwing up for 12 hours, and then it was announced that it wasn’t safe to swim there only a day later.”
E.coli is a common bacteria in bodies of water, particularly water that is shared with wildlife and is generally harmless in small amounts, only becoming dangerous when levels rapidly increase.
Other factors like stagnant water contribute to the risk of E.coli levels increasing – with hot temperatures and little rain, water has been relatively still in Recreation Bay. The symptoms of E.coli include severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. In certain cases, symptoms can continue for up to a week.
The Public Safety Division believes that it is unlikely that someone would have gotten sick as a result of swimming in the water.
“The one day the beach was open, the water tested negative,” reported MCK political press attache Joe Delaronde. This is in line with previous communications with Mark Horne, team leader of the Environmental Health Services at Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services, who explained that Health Services conducts proactive testing on local waters to prevent community illnesses.
Though it may have been worrying for locals who swam in the water to see back-to-back public safety announcements confirming and then warning of the water safety, Horne assures community members that closures are immediate following any concerning testing results.
It is unclear, however, if there is a possibility that E.coli levels may have been rising on the 17th, after the test that confirmed the water was safe and before the next test that resulted in the re-closure of Recreation Bay.
The source who experienced symptoms found it hard to believe that their sickness was not a result of E.coli contamination.
“It just matches with the symptoms of E.coli, for sure. It makes sense that it would be E.coli as opposed to something like the flu.”
It’s been a difficult end to the season for Recreation Bay this year. After the August 4 announcement that the beach would be closed due to E.coli, lifeguards were removed from the area and were never reinstated to their roles.
Since the initial closure, Recreation Bay has been a “swim at your own risk” area, making it more dangerous for young children and families.
“Without the lifeguards, too, it’s not safe,” our source commented. “Last year, I felt so much better having a young one at the beach and a lifeguard on hand. I never take my eye away from my kid at the beach, but it feels much better to have a lifeguard there.”
This lack of lifeguard presence also increased the difficulties of communicating the area’s dangers to the public – with no in-person lifeguards at the beach, word was spread of the E.coli infection via social media and radio.
“When they said it was closed again, I did see people at the beach area,” our source explained.
“I was on the other side near the bike path, so I couldn’t even shout to them to tell them, but I did see people there for sure after it was meant to be closed.”
Horne stressed that swimming in any body of public water involves taking some measured risk.
“It would be unfortunate if someone did get sick during that 36-hour time frame,” he explained.
“However, any individual can still get sick from E.coli or other coliform bacteria from ingesting water in swimming areas, even if it has been deemed safe to swim.”
Horne assured community members that Environmental Health Services have state-of-the-art equipment to monitor water levels, including a new machine that can measure bacteria levels more accurately.
He also notes that increased seagull and geese feces on the sand contributed to the decision to permanently close the beach – animal droppings can increase the E.coli risk.
Though it is possible that someone could have swam in the water and come into contact with the bacteria, Environmental Health Services did monitor the E.coli levels closely to minimize risk to members of the public.
However, our anonymous source noted that the E.coli levels and absent lifeguards left a stain on an otherwise positive summer.
“I thought it was negligent to just reopen right away,” they said. “It should have been closed the whole time. Too many children and families go there. We can’t take risks.”
Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door, and was previously an Editor at the McGill Daily. She has also reported on harm reduction and Indigenous issues for the Montreal Gazette, the Hoser, the Rover, and more.