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Canada Blue flags to flutter at healthy Toronto beaches

If you know what's in the water with you, you might be more likely to want to swim at Toronto's beaches, an environmental group said this week.

Calling Toronto's system of beach warnings vague, Environmental Defence Canada announced the start of the Blue Flag program to keep daily watch on the safety and environment on the city's swimming spots.

Early results show that several city beaches were environmentally healthy this summer.

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The program uses strict international standards, said Dr. Rick Smith, executive director of the national non-profit group Environmental Defence Canada. To qualify as safe for swimming, a beach must meet 27 criteria for health, environment, safety and services.

"The city is interested in getting this because it attracts tourism," said Peter Buechner, co-ordinator of the Blue Flag project for Environmental Defence in Toronto. The program started in Europe, where cities highlight their blue flags because they reassure visitors that they need not worry about using a beach.

The Toronto results and warnings will be posted daily on the Web site .

The least-polluted beaches in the city this year were on Ward's Island and Cherry Beach, which have had only one day in the past two months in which the E. coli bacteria count exceeded the standard of 100 per 100 millilitres of water. Hanlan's Point and Woodbine Beach have been safe for swimming on all but two or three days. These beaches are prime candidates to fly Blue Flags, Mr. Buechner said.

The flags will be supplemented with signs that post daily water-quality results.

Mr. Buechner said he believes the signs will be a major improvement over those the city now uses that suggest people phone a hot line or check a Web site for information.

Not every Toronto beach will qualify for Blue Flags, because the beaches in the west end and in Scarborough have long-term problems with pollution overflowing from the city's sewer system during storms, Mr. Buechner said.

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The group's Web site warns that the results posted now are for the previous day and that swimming is risky after a heavy rainstorm, which can wash bacteria and other pollutants into the water.

On a bad-water day, a flag on an approved beach will come down until the quality improves.

The Blue Flag will require not only regular water tests but daily cleaning of the beach, facilities for litter and recycling, restrictions on traffic and animals, lifeguards on duty and safe drinking water.

Among the things Toronto would have to create to meet the Blue Flag criteria is a program of educational activities about protecting the beach environments.

Toronto is the program's first beachhead in Canada.

"We would love to get all the beaches in Canada into the program," Mr. Buechner said.

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As well, the program is expanding to the Caribbean, Australia and South Africa.

Since the Blue Flag program was established in 1987, environmental groups that administer it in 24 countries have certified 2,087 beaches and 730 marinas. The flags are awarded only for each swimming season and are removed if standards are not met.

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