Exeter scientists to monitor health of wild swimmers for signs of water pollution

Hannah Pearson Credit: University of Exeter

Scientists are launching two investigations looking at wild swimming to monitor the effects of pollution in both the sea and in rivers.

The studies by the University of Exeter have been launched as more people embrace the health and wellbeing benefits of wild swimming, surfing, and paddling in the sea and rivers.

The Poo-Sticks project will look at wild swimming in rivers, while the BlueAdapt project will focus on people who go in the sea.

The researchers want to understand and protect people from the health risks related to pollution.

Contact with contaminated water can cause a range of issues including ear infections, skin rashes, respiratory illness, diarrhoea, and stomach cramps.

It can also expose people to bacteria that are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

For the last four years, Hannah Pearson has risen before 6am to take a pre-work dip in the River Dart.

She said: “There’s something very special about being immersed in cold, natural water. I love the privilege of witnessing and being close to nature, although I feel there are fewer fish around these days.

"You also feel amazing physiological effects. I feel energised and joyful after I swim.

“Yet in the past few years, we noticed people getting sick. I recently had a nasty skin infection which left a rash all over my body after I swam in the river.

“It’s so important to our communities to have access to clean, fresh water.

"This research is vital. We have to understand the health impacts of river pollution, and do all we can to preserve good water quality, for the good of the planet and for humanity.”

PhD student Elitsa Penkova is leading the project. She said: “A lot of people carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts, yet they’re completely unaware of it.

"But if bacteria causing an infection are resistant to antibiotics, then the treatment won’t work, which may lead to more severe illness.

"This is a major issue, and we hope our findings will help inform strategies for reducing the spread of antimicrobial resistant bacteria.”

Abigail Dixon Credit: University of Exeter

Abigail Dixon began regularly swimming in the sea once her father died. She now regularly swims in the waves with her husband and two teenage daughters.

She said: “Sea swimming has become so important to me, I found it extremely healing when dad died. It’s a really wholesome activity that unites our family, and it’s so good for mental health.

“This year I’ve definitely been swimming less than I’d like. I was put off by the water quality warnings in April, and I warn my girls not to put their heads under water.

"It’s disgusting to think about, but we still swim, because the benefits to all our physical and mental health are so valuable to us.

"This new research is really important. We need to understand what the risk really is to human health, so we can make informed decisions and so that decision-makers and companies understand the levels of harm to health.”

Participants will be asked to provide a faecal sample using a pre-paid postal kit and share information about their recent swimming activities, dietary habits, and overall lifestyle and health.

Researchers on the BlueAdapt project are asking anyone who has been to the beach and used coastal waters, and also uses the Surfers Against Sewage app, to take part in an online survey.

South West Water said: “We are serious about tackling storm overflows and change of this scale takes time, ambition, and increased investment – and that is why we are investing £850m in our region over 2 years.

“We were one of the first water companies to have all our storm overflows monitored meaning we know exactly what is happening, when and where, allowing us to target investment and make changes where it matters most.

“There are a wide range of factors which affect river water quality, including agricultural and urban pollution. We recognise that to improve the quality of our rivers, we all need to play our part and we will continue to support these projects where we can.”