Prevention & Recovery

How to make sure the water you're swimming in is safe

How to make sure the water you're swimming in is safe

Photo by Brooklyn Morgan on Unsplash

Prevention & Recovery

How to make sure the water you're swimming in is safe

If hitting the water close to home is part of your summer plans, it pays to be prepared. Besides stocking up on sunscreen and a bug spray, get ready for any sun, sand and surf trip by going over some basic water-safety tips. Here's what you need to know before jumping into any of Canada's bodies of water.

E. Coli and other water quality issues

Check the water quality of any beach before you go in. Most post water-quality signs on the beaches themselves, and many municipalities maintain beach-quality updates online.

Beaches will be posted as unsafe when E. Coli bacteria is found in elevated levels. E Coli comes from animal and human waste and is an indicator that water quality is poor, and that the water is also heavy in other bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Don't chance it and swim a posted beach. You're putting your whole family at risk for ear, eye, nose, throat or gastrointestinal infections.

Finally, go to to get updated listings for Canada's best beaches, chosen for their safety, water quality and environmental management.

Stay away from hydro electric dams and stations

The calm water upstream of a hydro-electric dam or station can seem like the perfect spot for a dip or canoe ride. And the river downstream of one may seem like an ideal spot to wade or cast a fishing line. Don't risk it though. Dams are operated remotely as the need for electricity dictates, and a river bed downstream that's calm one moment can be swamped in whitewater rapids the next – submerging your boat or washing you into the current. Upriver, boats or swimmers can be pulled into the dam or generating station. Heed warning signs posted by any utility companies, even if you can't see the actual dam or station.


Check the water depth before diving

Every year 50 Canadian swimmers suffer a spinal cord injury after diving into shallow water and colliding headfirst with the bottom or obstructions such as rocks, says ThinkFirst, the National Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Prevention Foundation. These injuries commonly result in paralysis. Others end in death when the injured party drowns after sustaining a concussion or spinal cord injury.

Don't dive – or let your kids dive – off a dock, riverbank or other surface unless you are 100 per cent positive the water below is at least 2.75 metres deep (roughly 9 feet). Jump in foot first until you know for sure. Remember, water can appear deeper than it actually is.

Don't drink alcohol and swim

Accidents involving brain and spinal cord injuries involve alcohol a whopping one-third of the time, according to ThinkFirst. Alcohol clouds judgment and impairs your reaction time, so don't drink and swim. Besides helping you nix unwise risks, sobriety will enable you to respond faster if your kids need help in the water. So pack lemonade and iced tea in your picnic cooler, not beer.


Use a personal floatation device, not armbands

Water wings (those inflatable armbands you can find at dollar stores) are novelty toys, not an appropriate flotation device for kids who can't swim. If your kids are playing by the water but can't swim, the only acceptable flotation device is an actual Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Likewise, if they are in a boat, they should have the PFD on at all times – even if they can swim. The Canadian Red Cross offers additional safety tips.


Guarded versus unguarded beaches

According to a recent study by the United States Center for Disease Control & Prevention, the chance of drowning at a life-guarded beach is less than one in 18 million. Most drownings occur at unguarded beaches and swimming pools. Unfortunately, the vast majority of beaches in North America are unguarded. To increase your family's safety, stick to guarded beaches.

If you do go to an unguarded beach, go to one with other swimmers. Never swim alone.


Rip currents

Follow warning signs, and exercise caution in areas with a posted rip current (aka riptide). Rip currents can occur in any body of water with wave action, which includes lakes as well as oceans. Rip currents occur when the "backwash" of waves returning outward to the lake or ocean proper after coming ashore, is pushed sideways by the wind. The water streams along the shoreline until it finds a trench between sandbars or piers or along jetties, then it surges outward very powerfully away from shore. Swimmers can drown in a rip current if they fight it – they'll tire and drown. (Conversely, surfers and lifeguards will often utilize rip currents to save energy when moving away from shore in a hurry.)

Go over the following rip current action plan with your kids: 

• Avoid rip currents. Heed posted warning signs, stay 30 metres away from piers and jetties, and avoid areas of relatively calm-looking water if waves are coming in all around it – that calm area (sometimes it may also appear to be a different hue than the surrounding water) is likely to hold the rip current.

• When caught in a rip current, don't panic. It will NOT pull you under.

• Don't try to swim back to shore within the rip current. Just swim parallel to the shoreline for about 10 metres, so you can escape the rip current. Then start swimming towards shore.



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Prevention & Recovery

How to make sure the water you're swimming in is safe