Swim Magazine

Is it safe to go open-water swimming in the UK?

Environmental organisation Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has warned of the risks to swimmers at some of the country’s favourite pleasure spots. There were more than 300,000 sewage spills in England alone in 2022 according to the Environment Agency, and the resulting pollution is causing health conditions ranging from sore throats and upset stomachs to serious illnesses like gastroenteritis, hepatitis and e coli.
Words: Christine Boggis
Picture: Jon Herbert

How to stay safe when open-water swimming

  • Avoid swimming downstream from a sewage overflow directly after heavy rainfall. 
  • Download the Safer Seas & Rivers Service app and get notified if there’s a spill near your favourite beach. 
  • Check your local river pool isn’t polluted at theriverstrust.org. 
  • Read top tips for staying safe and healthy from the Outdoor Swimming Society at outdoorswimmingsociety.com.
  • Trust your instincts: ‘If you are going to enter some water and it looks or smells different from usual, go with your gut and avoid it,’ says SAS’s community water quality officer Kirsty Davies. 

What are the figures on water pollution in the UK?

Figures on sewage spills are only available in a limited number of locations, which mostly include coastal designated waters – which means hundreds of popular swimming sites across the UK don’t have official designation and so are left in the dark about the impact of sewage pollution. All the information comes from water companies, and the government and general public have to trust them to be honest. There is also no information released about waters in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and only limited information about Wales.

‘Water companies treat our blue spaces like an open sewer and government and regulators turn a blind eye,’ says SAS, which reports that sewage was dumped into designated bathing waters over 5,000 times during the 2022 bathing season. Just seven out of 10 of the UK’s bathing beaches are rated excellent by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – meaning nearly one-third need improvement. Only 14% of the UK’s rivers are considered to be in good ecological health and every single one fails to meet required chemical standards, according to The Rivers Trust.

The SAS Water Quality Report says government cuts to funding for the environment have seen the water industry governing itself while regulators stand by and watch. The report found sewage was dumped into bathing waters 5,504 times for a total of 15,012 hours during the 2022 English bathing season alone, which runs from 15 May to 30 September. Most of the spills occurred at bathing waters rated ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ by the Environment Agency.

Why are UK waters being polluted?

Sewage overflows were designed and intended to be an ‘emergency release valve’ which would only operate in ‘exceptional rainfall events’ to reduce pressure on the sewage system and avoid sewage backing up into our homes. But the government has admitted that these overflows ‘are being used significantly beyond their original purpose’. SAS found there were 143 ‘dry spills’, where there was no rain in that area for two days before the event, last year. Ninety-two of these were at locations classified as ‘excellent’ for water quality. Forty-one of the spills took place during the 2022 bathing season, a summer declared the hottest on record, when hundreds of thousands of people flocked to rivers and beaches to keep cool.  

SAS says: ‘Water companies are deliberately choosing not to invest in their infrastructure and knowingly pumping out sewage into waterways to avoid the costs of treating sewage,’ the SAS concludes on its website. ‘The government is not only turning a blind eye, but is complicit in the sewage scandal. They’ve gutted regulator funding, reducing it from £120 million to £50 million over the last decade. When faced with a crisis of ocean health, the government has done little more than kick the can down the road and continue to placate offending water companies.’ 

Other offenders are large-scale industrial farms, according to Greenpeace, which explains: ‘It’s partly that factory-farmed animals, like chickens and cows, produce lots of poo. But the industrial farm model also relies on chemicals to keep the land producing crops. Our rivers suffer as livestock waste and chemicals leach from farms, polluting the water with
a chemical cocktail.’

How can you help to protect the UK’s rivers and beaches?

Greenpeace is calling on the government to properly fund environmental agencies, give regulators legal powers and authority to hold polluters to account, and to set ambitious legal targets to clean up water quality. The Rivers Trust is calling for community partnerships and synchronised planning to help rivers. SAS organises beach cleans and protests, and is urging people to get involved in protecting their local bathing spots.

Get bathing water status: Surfers Against Sewage is encouraging communities to apply for bathing water status for their inland swimming spots – which would mean the Environment Agency has to monitor water quality in those locations.

Sign up: Add your name to petitions from Greenpeace and Surfers Against Sewage urging the government to take action on water quality.

Put it in writing: SAS is encouraging swimmers to write to their MPs to demand they speak up for rivers and the sea in parliament and that the government produces an action plan that is fit for purpose to end sewage pollution. Find out more at sas.org.uk.