Are you the kind of person who likes living in happy oblivion about what could be in the open water you swim in? Are you likely to be put off open water if you know about the stuff that could be in there? If you answer “yes” to either of these you might want to think about whether you read any further.
If, like me, you like to know the ins and outs of whatever situation you’re getting yourself into then read away.
This blog covers the tiny stuff in the water, the bits you can’t see, and the bits you maybe don’t know about or want to think about. That could be bacteria, viruses, microscopic plants, parasites, chemicals and pollen as well as a myriad of other things I haven’t thought of. I’m not dealing with them all here, this is just a bit of a run down of what happens with the tiny stuff.
I don’t want to put people off but I believe giving people a better understanding of possible risks enables them to turn potentially dangerous situations into manageable fun activities.
A friend of mine refers to my cold damp hobby as swimming with turds. I love it, it’s hilarious, it reminds me of a childhood with two older brothers who mostly talked about poo and farts. But does she have a point? Am I swimming with turds? Is swimming with turds a bad thing?
Brutal honesty time, if you swim outside you’re swimming with nature and all that entails. Birds, fish and a load of other creatures will have pooed in that water at some point, there will be tiny microscopic creatures in the water with you, there will be bacteria in there. I’ve definitely never seen an actual turd float past me whilst I’ve been swimming though!
What’s the potential impact of swimming with turds then?
The most likely things that could happen are minor stomach bugs, upper respiratory tract irritation and skin irritation, also known as swimmers itch. More serious stuff can include severe stomach bugs and Weil’s disease. I can’t stress enough how rare these last two are. Unless you’re really silly and swim where you know there is potential for poo to be in the water then severe stomach bugs are unlikely.
I’m not going to go into the details of Weil’s disease, you can read about that here and in lots of other places https://www.rospa.com/leisure-safety/water/advice/weils-disease/. All I will say is that it’s very rare in the UK, it is something that needs to be treated to prevent complications but by being aware of it, adopting good hygiene measures before and after a swim and getting medical attention if you are concerned about illness is the best way to alleviate worries.
I’ve been swimming outside for 4 years now and I can safely say I’ve never been able to directly link an illness to swimming outside. I occasionally get a bit of skin irritation but that’s usually if I’ve not managed to have a shower straight after my swim. The same thing happens if I don’t shower after I’ve been in the pool so, you know, I accept that bit of occasional itchiness to enjoy an activity I love. Life is all about compromise after all.
So should you worry about the potential for getting ill? I hope that by giving you a little bit of understanding about water systems and how the human body deals with tiny nasty stuff you may become more comfortable with the concept of “swimming with turds” and whether illness if likely or no.
I should clarify here I’m not a Dr, a microbiologist or a hydrologist so what I say here is based on three years at University (a while ago), a lot of time spent around water in my free time and a bit of an internet based refresh of what I thought I knew. If anyone reads this, with better knowledge, and wants to correct anything please shout up.
We’re exposed to all kinds of bugs and beasties on a daily basis and our bodies are amazing at dealing with all that. Our immune, digestive and filtering liver and kidney systems deal with things that could make us poorly or irritate something every day. But, the majority of people aren’t permanently ill. Why?
It generally relates to how high a dose of something you’re exposed to. A bit like a couple of paracetamol to get rid of a headache is fine but swallow a few packets of them and you’re going to get very sick.
Microbiologists often refer to “viable counts” and “colony forming units” when they look at potential for infection by something tiny. Both of those things mean how many of those tiny disease or illness causing things there are in sample of water or blood or from a surface.
Being exposed to just one of the tiny disease causing things probably isn’t going to give you that disease or make you sick. Your immune system and the other stuff I mentioned above will get rid of it, neutralise it and make sure it’s flushed out of your system. If you’re exposed to thousands or millions of those tiny disease causing things your body might not be able to stop all of them. The ones that don’t get flushed from your system can then cause you problems.
In terms of open water swimming you’re usually going to be exposed to the tiny things by drinking (accidentally) the water, water getting up your nose or through cuts on your skin.
How high a dose you’re exposed to will depend on how much water those tiny things are in. For example if a duck poos in a small pond that poo is diluted into a small amount of water. There’ll be a higher count of tiny nasty things from that poo in each litre of water in the pond than say if that single poo was diluted in a massive reservoir. The more diluted the tiny nasty thing is the lower dose you’ll get from each gobful of water that accidentally goes in. That doesn’t mean to say that a massive reservoir is always cleaner than a little pond, there are lots of other factors to consider too but I hope this, very simplified, example gives you an idea of how, by being more diluted, the nasty stuff has a lower chance of giving ill effects.
Have I made it sound like swimming outside’s a really bad idea because it’s going to make you poorly yet?
No? Yes? Well I’ll add a bit more then to help you try and make up your mind.
If anyone can hark back to school geography you may or may not remember learning about water systems. Our rivers, lakes, reservoirs and seas are fed by rainfall and water from underground. Rain falls on the land and, thanks to gravity, flows downhill. Tiny streams on high ground meet other streams and groundwater springs. The water travels down, sometimes via a lake or a reservoir, then another river, then a bigger river until finally it ends up flowing out into the sea.
As the water flows down towards the sea it increases in volume so that dilution thing I talked about before might improve things right? It’s not quite that simple.
As water flows across land it picks other stuff up too. Big stuff like twigs and leaves but also tiny stuff like bacteria from a cow pat that a Friesian’s deposited near the water’s edge, fertilizer that a farmer’s spread on his fields, oil or chemicals that have washed off an industrial site. Nasty stuff can accumulate in the water as it flows further downhill.
The state of waterways in the UK is significantly better than it used to be. From the industrial revolution right up until the 70’s and 80’s many of our waterways declined in water quality for lots of reasons. We dumped industrial pollution in them, we pumped raw sewage into them. Lots of them were grim and you wouldn’t even poke them with a stick let alone jump in them. Thanks to tighter regulation and changing habits things are improving but, that doesn’t mean to say everything’s clean and clear with no potential to cause ill effects.
Water companies are still allowed to discharge some outputs from water treatment works into our rivers and streams. During high water and flood events water companies are permitted to allow raw sewage to enter our rivers and coastal areas. Agricultural products are washed off the land by rainfall whether that be fertilisers, insecticides or manure. Surface water drains often overspill into waterways adding oil and fuel spills, salt and grit in the winter from roads.
Add to that the natural stuff. Soil suspended in the water, the odd dead fish, a bit of duck poo and things start to get quite interesting as you move further away from the original water source.
So, should I avoid swimming in massive rivers that are a long way from the original water source?
Not necessarily. Lots of things influence what’s gone into that water before it ends up at the sea. A river that runs through a massive city may well have higher pollution levels than one that’s only flowed through pristine mountains before it ends up at the sea. Use your brain, have a look at a map to see what’s upstream, look at the water you’re about to jump into. If the water looks and smells gross then maybe think twice about jumping in. Be aware of your surroundings. Even the cleanest looking water could be polluted with stomach bug causing bacteria if cattle have access to the water’s edge. The Short One discovered that last year in the wilds of Scotland……….even we experienced types get caught out sometimes!
There are particular times you should be cautious too. When there’s been heavy rainfall more stuff gets washed into our water systems. That can be big stuff like trees and branches but also more of the tiny stuff. Pollution levels at coastal beaches near estuaries often increase when there’s been heavy rainfall for this reason.
Conversely in times of low rainfall water can become stagnant giving the nasty stuff time to flourish before it’s washed away and with less water the nasty stuff’s less diluted too.
Doesn’t the government or someone monitor our waterways to make sure they’re clean though?
If only! We have a lot of water in the UK and it would take a lot of time and money to monitor all of it.
If you’re swimming at an organised venue then, usually, yes the water will have been tested to make sure it’s clean enough. Open water venues can be a bit hit and miss in terms of their set up as there is no regulation around who can and can’t run an organised swim venue. At the venue I help run we have a regular sample regime throughout our season and I’m pleased to report we’ve always had excellent bathing water quality. We are however, very near the water source. The water in our reservoir travels approximately 9km from it’s source in the Peak District to our little swim spot. It’s not had chance to pick up many nasties on the way.
What I should caution about here though is that water testing will only ever look at a few specific things. Our test complies with the EU Bathing Water Directive. It covers key indicators, limited to four items. It does not test for every possible strain of bacteria, virus or microscopic plant or animal that could be in that sample. Using indicator items gives an excellent picture of whether anything else might be in there too but it’s not the final answer that the water is good. The samples are taken on one day, they’re a snapshot of a moment in time. There’s nothing to say that a sudden pollution incident the day after won’t make that test null and void. Common sense needs to play a part too. That’s why we always inspect the water before every swim and have, on occasion, decided to cancel an organised swim because we’re not happy with the state of the water on the day despite recent excellent water test results.
If you’re not swimming at an organised venue then data on water quality is available but only for certain locations. The Environment Agency have to sample at certain designated Bathing Water sites around England but these are mostly coastal sites. If you fancy a bit of a nerd session you can find the data here https://environment.data.gov.uk/bwq/profiles/. Very little information is available for inland waterways although some projects are underway to try and improve our understanding including Earthwatch’s FreshWater Watch project which is sampling in the UK as well as around the world https://earthwatch.org/Scientific-Research/FreshWater-Watch.
So, how can you feel happy that you’re not going to suffer ill effects from swimming outside?
Use some common sense, look at the water, if you can, ask the locals what it’s like. Adopt good hygiene practices, have a shower after a swim and wash your hands before you eat or drink anything post swim. Cover cuts and grazes with a waterproof plaster.
In all honesty I’m more than happy to run the unlikely risk of the odd waterbourne illness for the vast benefit I get from being immersed in nature. The same can be said of everything in life. If we only ever listen to the “what ifs” we’d never leave the house. I hope this blog’s not put you off but given you the information you need to understand the risks associated with the tiny stuff.