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How Safe Are the UK’s Rivers and Lakes?

When considering the safety of the UK’s rivers and lakes there are many different factors to take into account. Firstly, it has to be remembered that only experienced and strong swimmers should consider swimming in outdoor water such as rivers and lakes.  It’s all but impossible to accurately gauge the depth of water from the shore, and even still or placid looking lakes and rivers may hide fast moving and dangerous currents just below the surface. It should also be borne in mind that, even on a baking hot summer’s day, the water just below the surface of a lake can be extremely cold, and that the shock of this can cause problems even for strong swimmers. Add to these factors things such as slippy rocks underfoot and weeds which you can get tangled up in, and it’s plain to see that even the cleanest stretch of wild water is something which only the strongest swimmer should contemplate tackling.

All of this is assuming that the water in question is clean enough to swim in. Although great strides have been made in recent years, as the environmental message has spread and strengthened, there are still many dangers lurking in natural water thanks to the presence of different forms of pollution. The most common forms of pollution can be broken down into separate categories, such as the following:

Industrial pollution

Despite the dangers involved, many industrial and manufacturing facilities still use freshwater sources to carry pollution and by-products away from the plant. These can include substances as harmful as asbestos, lead, nitrates, mercury and oil. Any or all of these substances are extremely harmful to the native wildlife of the average waterway, as well as being damaging to any person who is unlucky enough to come into contact with them. Aside from the problems caused if any of these highly toxic elements are swallowed, there may well be an adverse reaction if they merely come into contact with the skin.

Underground Storage Leaks

Much of the water present above ground, in the form of rivers, streams and lakes, started life as part of the water table under the ground. Many dangerous and damaging chemical, such as petrol, are also stored in man-made tanks under the ground and, over time, these can become corroded and damaged, releasing their contents into the immediate environment. This pollution of the water table eventually finds its way into the neighbouring soil and the water at ground level.


Although it’s tempting to think of rain as being the purest possible source of water, this is often not the case. Any pollution in the air gets absorbed into water vapour which then goes on to form the actual rain itself, thus being carried down to form part of the rivers and lakes below.

Water Monitoring by UK Environment Agency

Luckily, when it comes to assessing the safety or otherwise of a body of water, the average person isn’t left to their own devices.  The UK Environment Agency constantly assesses the quality of fresh water using a variety of measures aimed at monitoring the biological, chemical and nutritional make-up of the water. Throughout what might be called the ‘swimming season’ the water in these places is measured for the presence of bacteria which would indicate pollution from sewage or agricultural waste.

Clearly then, there are many dangers inherent in swimming, boating or simply paddling in the UK’s rivers and lakes, some of them natural, but many of them sadly man made in nature. Any of the problems caused by pollution tend to be exaggerated in times of drought, as the diluting nature of the water itself is lessened.

Another factor to bear in mind when considering how to use public stretches of water in the UK is whether or not access has been granted. There is no single hard and fast rule when it comes to where a person can or can’t swim in public water, and it’s often a case of asking the locals. If an area has no easy access and is fenced off, then the chances are that the land in question is private and the same will apply to the water. Many stretches of water are maintained for specific purposes, such as fishing or boating and are thus not suited to any other uses.  The vast majority of reservoirs, on the other hand, refuse to allow swimming, on the grounds of both safety and hygiene.

The golden rule when approaching a body of water is to use your eyes and do your research – if water looks stagnant, is full of litter and obviously dirty, then it’s not to be trusted and will probably cause you harm. Even if water looks clean, fresh and safe, however, it’s worth looking into such issues as whether there is a sewage works or large factory upstream, and whether it’s been recommended by other users.

About Analytical Technology

Analytical Technology Inc, (ATi) is a UK branch of an American owned company. We supply monitoring solutions with the use of analytical instrumentation based on electrochemical and optical sensors. We specialise in water quality measurements and toxic gas detection and strive to achieve outstanding customer service levels, offer reliable sales advice, and provide technical support for tricky applications.
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