What’s going on here?

The government has designated 27 new “bathing waters” across England. These sites will be subject to regular pollution testing in the summer months, and must maintain a minimum standard to be considered safe for swimming.

What does this mean?

First, a bit of background. In the UK, water companies are allowed to discharge excess wastewater (containing sewage) into rivers and seas when capacity is exceeded, such as after heavy rainfall. Evidence suggests that this happens much more often than necessary, polluting our environment with sewage.

Testing by the Environment Agency measures the presence of bacteria and viruses from sewage. Just because a site is designated bathing water does not mean it’s safe to swim. However, tests which expose poor water quality can put pressure on water companies to stop dumping sewage into our rivers and seas. 

There is concern that this move does little to get to the root of the problem. A handful of the new sites are already anticipating a “Poor” water quality rating- which does not meet the minimum standard for swimming. The majority of applications for bathing water status are also rejected by the government, allowing the sewage dumping to continue and avoiding accountability.

Why should we care?

Engaging with our local, natural environment through activities such as swimming and water sports is an important part of physical and mental wellbeing. It also fosters a stronger sense of environmental stewardship and action against any form of environmental degradation. Poor water quality and pollution make these benefits less accessible, particularly to those who may be at higher risk of infection or illness.

Direct contact or accidentally swallowing of polluted water when wild swimming can cause a range of different illnesses: stomach bugs, ear infections (known as “surfer’s ear”), eye infections, and hepatitis A. Sewage pollution also reduces the biodiversity of our rivers and coastal ecosystems. Raw sewage can cause algal blooms which use up oxygen from the water, suffocating other species.

Bathing water status improves safety for swimmers, but testing is only carried out between mid-May and the end of September. This doesn’t account for activity outside of the summer months – when waters are actually more susceptible to sewage dumping due to high rainfall! Plus, there is no testing done at sites which are not designated bathing waters.

Be curious!

  • Surfers Against Sewage are building up evidence to hold governments and water companies to account. Report water pollution on their website and fill out this form if you get sick after swimming.
  • Surfers Against Sewage also have a real-time map where you can track sewage discharge.
  • Check the quality of your local bathing water on the UK government website.

Featured image by Todd Quakenbush via Unsplash