When contamination at favourite Scottish swim spots is more than just a plop in the ocean
Gulping down mouthfuls of water that has been flushed down the toilet is nobody’s idea of seaside fun.
But that could be the reality, as official figures show more than half of the country’s most popular beaches were contaminated with sewage in breach of safety limits this summer.
A total of 49 of Scotland’s 87 designated bathing waters recorded potentially harmful concentrations of faecal bacteria, with some blackspots hit with levels up to 50 times the danger limit.
As well as the obvious boak factor and risk to health, there are other reasons we should be concerned.
Many combined sewer systems – where water from street drains and sewage is mixed together – are designed to overspill in ‘exceptional’ circumstances, such as following unusually heavy rainfall, to stop treatment facilities becoming overwhelmed.
In such situations the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) advises the public to stay out of the water for a day or two afterwards “due to the risk to bathers’ health from water pollution”.
However, as climate change exerts its force, Scotland is likely to see a big rise in extreme weather events and what was once classed as exceptional will become increasingly commonplace.
Sepa has a duty to sample bathing waters and publish the results during our official bathing season, which runs from June 1 to September 15.
However, there is no need to provide information outwith these dates, despite more people nowadays engaging in activities such as wild swimming, surfing and kayaking at all times of the year.
Perhaps the season could be extended – after all, climate change is also raising water and air temperatures – or else monitoring could be extended to cover all 12 months.
It would be nice to know whether the water you’re in is clean or likely to lead to a nasty illness.
National water and sewage firm Scottish Water has been asked to install spill monitors on all the sewer overflows that discharge to designated bathing waters by the end of 2024 to help guide future upgrades of the network – more than 300 have already been put in, with 1,000 more planned.
Let’s hope improvements will be futureproof and make it safe to get back in the water, whatever the weather.
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