Floating Garbage on Lake Ontario Leads to High Bacteria Warnings

Garbage including used condoms float near children on a sailboat in Toronto's Harbor, July 2016 [photo: Lake Ontario Waterkeeper]
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Toronto is one of the largest cities in the Great Lakes region. And its long shoreline offers quick access to the cool waters of Lake Ontario.

On a typical summer day, the waterfront is bustling with activity. Children play in sprinklers and take to the water in sailboats, canoes and kayaks. But signs along the harbor caution that the water can be loaded with bacteria.

Now, environmentalists are shining more light on the condition of Toronto’s waters. And they’re using a grisly image: condoms -- thousands of them -- and other floating garbage they found last month.

Out on the water, Mark Mattson from the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper opens a plastic bag. A sour smell floats upwards, as he pulls out some of the items: condoms, stained tampons and Wetnaps. All dripping. All used. All slimy.

The source of the garbage is unknown. The city says it could have come from a boat, but a spokesman declined an interview request. Mattson suspects another culprit: the city’s combined sewer overflow system.

Generally, wastewater from households and storm waters move through the same system of pipes. During heavy rains the system can get overloaded. That means the waters bypass treatment plants and go straight into the lake.

The Waterkeeper group has been monitoring the problem by collecting water samples and testing for bacteria.

“This is our second day on the water doing sampling this summer. We’ve been collecting samples over time in the Toronto harbor for the last ten years,” says Krystyn Tully of the organization.

On a sunny day, tests show that bacteria levels are low, she says. But, when it rains, bacteria levels are elevated. And so is the likelihood of finding floating trash.

Across the border in the U.S., there are nearly 200 cities with combined sewer systems. Of those, the Alliance for the Great Lakes reports, Detroit has historically had the highest discharge.

“Your large urban areas are putting the most overflows into the lakes just because of the population the density and the way the infrastructure is built,” said Nate Drag from the Alliance. “So any large city -- Buffalo, Rochester Toronto -- they're all dealing with these issues and you see the impact of that specifically in those local areas right along those shorelines.”

The Waterkeeper group plans to push the city of Toronto to test more of its waters. Right now, tests are done on a small portion of the waters. And that’s mainly at a few beaches on Toronto Island.

That’s not enough, Mattson says.

The group plans to compile all of its data and publish a report in the fall.

“They’re going to ask the city of Toronto to expand its monitoring and take steps to improve and enlarge the access to the waterfront,” Mattson says. “Because that’s our overall goal -- to make Lake Ontario swimmable, drinkable and fishable.”

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