More than half of Scotland’s most popular beaches for wild swimming have been polluted with unsafe levels of sewage this summer, with one tourist hotspot 50 times higher than the safe limit.
Analysis by The Ferret has revealed that, since the start of May, 50 of the country’s 89 designated bathing waters have breached European safety limits for faecal bacteria at least once when they were tested.
Fourteen of these were among 38 swimming spots where water quality is classed as ‘excellent’ by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).
The contamination mostly occurs after heavy rain, which causes sewers to overflow or washes animal faeces from farms and land into the waters. It can pose serious health risks to swimmers and surfers.
The highest concentrations of faecal bacteria this summer were found at Lower Largo beach in Fife. Levels there were found to be at least 50 times the safe limit on three separate occasions.
Campaigners told The Ferret it was “disgusting that the majority of Scotland’s most precious blue spaces are being blighted” by sewage pollution. They called for better monitoring and reduction targets to stop sewage being released into bathing waters “for good”.
Sepa said it was working with partners to “raise or maintain the state of bathing waters throughout the country”. The agency advises people not to swim for 1-2 days after rain and publishes real-time water quality predictions on its website.
Scottish Water claimed that water quality is “generally good” in Scotland. It added that it is “enhancing its assets” near bathing waters where necessary, and is investigating how to decrease sewage pollution at Lower Largo.
Farm runoff and sewer overflows
Between the start of May and 15 September, Sepa sampled 89 Scottish bathing waters on between five and 18 occasions.
The bathing waters all have ‘designated’ status, which means they have more than 150 daily visitors and are monitored for pollution to prevent risk to the health of swimmers.
Sepa’s sampling checked the waters for concentrations of E.Coli and intestinal enterococci (IE), two bacteria found in faeces. E.Coli and IE are reliable indicators that a body of water contains sewage.
Swimming or surfing in water polluted with sewage can cause health issues including stomach upsets, sore throats, and infections to the skin, ears, chest and eyes.
Of the 17 samples of water taken at Lower Largo, seven showed levels of both E.Coli and IE which exceeded safe levels.
Concentrations of E.Coli at Lower Largo were found to be at least 20 times higher than the European limit on four occasions – on 6 June, 6 July, 16 August and 31 August. On three of these occasions, levels of IE were at least 50 times higher than considered safe.
Lower Largo was only designated as a bathing water in 2022, when it also had some of the highest levels of sewage pollution in the country. The water quality there is classified as ‘poor’ by Sepa, with the main source of pollution being overflows from sewers after heavy rain.
Luss Bay – a popular location for water sports enthusiasts on the west shore of Loch Lomond – returned two samples where water breached limits. A sample taken on 12 June found concentrations of E.Coli which were nearly seven times higher than the safe limit.
Pollution at Luss comes from surface water washing into the loch during wet weather, alongside runoff from farms. Dog and gull faeces have been identified as two significant sources of the pollution there.
On 21 June, Dores beach – considered one of the best viewpoints down Loch Ness – recorded levels of E.Coli and IE which were nearly five and seven times the safe level, respectively. The main risk there is farms, sewer overflows and the discharge of treated sewage.
There was one new designated bathing water in 2023 – Wardie Bay beside Granton Harbour in Edinburgh. Water there breached the safe limit for IE on one occasion, on 17 May.
Fisherrow Sands in Musselburgh regained its designated bathing water status this year after losing it in 2019 due to poor water quality over an extended period. Fisherrow Sands marginally breached safety limits for IE in tests carried out on 1 and 3 August.
‘Excellent’ beaches polluted
In total, 24 samples taken at bathing waters considered ‘excellent’ by Sepa found levels of faecal bacteria exceeding safe levels.
On 1 June, concentrations of IE at Coldingham were nearly twice the limit, while on 11 September, levels of E.Coli were nearly four times the safe level.
On 24 August, sampling at the ‘excellent’ Tiger Hill beach in Fraserburgh found water containing over four times the limit for E.Coli and five times the limit for IE. It also exceeded the limit for IE on 22 June.
Sampling at Ruby Bay in Elie on 26 June found water there had ten times as much IE bacteria as is considered safe. Water at Rosehearty beach in Aberdeenshire returned three separate samples where either E.Coli, IE, or both were in breach of the limit.
Meanwhile, of the 35 beaches rated as ‘good’ by Sepa – the next level down from ‘excellent’ – 19 had at least one test where safe limits for faecal bacteria were exceeded.
Louise Reddy, a policy officer at SAS, claimed Sepa’s current advice for water users to avoid bathing after heavy rainfall “simply isn’t good enough”.
“It is disgusting that the majority of Scotland’s most precious blue spaces are being blighted by sewage pollution,” Reddy told The Ferret.
We are calling for real time pollution monitoring to be shared with the public so we can make better decisions about our safety.”
Gemmell said: “Our volunteers have been recording high levels of sewage-related litter across the central belt for years, so we know there’s cause for concern over the impacts of sewage pollution.
“We want to see the Scottish Government enforce monitoring of all storm overflows and spill reduction targets, to stop sewage discharging in the sea for good.”
Scottish Greens MSP, Mark Ruskell, said he had spoken to wild swimmers in his region who had been “impacted by polluted water and have been made ill as a result”.
Ruskell added: “These findings raise the urgent need for easily available and accessible public information so that local people can make informed choices.”
A Scottish Water spokesperson pointed out that not all cases of faecal contamination were associated with discharges from its sewers. It noted that “agricultural runoff can often be a significant factor”.
They said: “Scottish Water ensures its assets are performing properly before and during the bathing season. Whenever there is a high result, meeting the agreed trigger level, we carry out investigations to ensure our assets are operating as intended.”
Sepa’s water quality classifications for designated bathing waters are calculated using four years of monitoring data. This indicates the average water quality at different swimming spots.
A spokesperson for the agency said: “Scotland’s bathing water quality is the best it has been since 2015 when tighter standards first came into force. This summer’s season started with more bathing waters than ever before, and a record-breaking number rated excellent.
Cover image: Wirestock/iStock
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