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Is it safe to swim in the sea?

Is it safe to swim in the sea?

How clean is the water around our coasts?

  • Lucy Siegle


swim in the sea

Beach sweep: surfers protest against sewage in Bournemouth. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

Good news! You’re less likely than you were in 1990 to encounter a turd in the surf. This happened to Cornish surfer Chris Hines, who got one squished between him and his board. It inspired him to start the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS). Twenty-three years later, organisations such as SAS and investment by water companies have brought about higher standards. There are now 500 bathing water sites in the UK (including 11 registered freshwater bathing sites), and you can monitor their bathing water standards at

However, the tide hasn’t completely turned. This year water bathing quality classified as excellent has fallen to its lowest level since 2000. Up to 1.75m cases of gastrointestinal infections per year are caused by contaminated bathing waters. And, in two years, when EU standards come in which are twice as strict in terms of tolerance of microbial loads in water samples, 50 British beaches might be condemned.

There’s always a balance to be found between expense and risk. Regulatory authorities play down risk and privatised water companies need to make money for shareholders. One recent bathing-water-quality scandals concerns combined sewer outflows (CSOs). CSO episodes occur after heavy rain, when water overwhelms ageing sewerage systems and discharges waste water into rivers and on to beaches. They cause serious pollution and are pernicious after dry spells (and  heat waves). SAS has been flushing this practice out and notifying the public when it happens.

We all need to get our own houses in order. The Environment Agency is on the prowl for “misconnections”. It  estimates 5% of houses have wrongly (or illegally) connected pipes from loos, sinks and washing machines, all taking pollutants into the clean water drain rather than the foul pipe (activists think the real number is far higher). Some of this is down to DIY plumbing;  some to deliberate cowboy building to save on cost and effort.

Brands love Big Ocean protection – a network of protected marine areas. For example Davidoff Cool Water is running a campaign with National Geographic‘s Pristine Seas Mission. With every bottle you purchase you help to protect 10,000 sq metres of ocean. Clicking on the Facebook page saves 5,000 sq metres.

We must also be vigilant about our loos. The advice is don’t use the bog as a bin. That includes wipes and cotton buds. Saving the seas begins at home.

If you have an ethical dilemma, send an email to Lucy at

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