In the UK Designated Bathing Waters are given a water quality rating from “excellent” down to “poor” on an annual basis. This is informed by water quality samples taken during the previous bathing season which are tested for faecal matter (specifically testing for E. coli and intestinal enterococci).
However, in England and Wales, samples are only taken weekly over the summer months and don’t consider water quality in the winter when many of us are still surfing and swimming. This means lots of discharges will be missed.
Samples are only taken at one point along the designated beach or river and often away from any sources of pollution e.g. a sewage pipe! Shockingly, up to 15% of samples taken can be discounted when there has been an ‘unusual event’ which includes a sewage discharge9. On top of this, no consideration is given to emerging threats such as microplastics and antibiotic resistance. Alarmingly, antibiotic resistance has been shown to be three times more prevalent in the guts of surfers than in the background population.10 With global deaths from antibiotic resistance set to exceed those from cancer by 2025, this is extremely concerning.
This all adds up to a rather murky view of water quality at designated bathing waters, particularly if you want real-time water quality information for your weekly dips. To help this, the regulators in England and Wales supply “Pollution Risk Forecasts” warnings when they suspect the water quality is too poor to enter the water safely. But these are only provided for 222 locations, only issued during the bathing season and are based on historic water quality samples taken during the summer.
Worryingly, this year we received more reports of sickness from ‘excellent’ bathing spots (424 reports) than any other classification, that’s equivalent to one report of sickness at every ‘excellent’ bathing spot in the UK (Figure 3). Meaning, if you just use bathing water ratings you can’t be sure that your swim will be as ‘excellent’ as you might hope.