From listening to the radio or watching TV you might get the impression that up to 450 people drown while swimming in rivers or lakes every year. You would be very wrong. Read on to find out why.

Between 12 and 14 climbers die every year on Snowdon and in the adjacent Ogwen valley alone. On average more than 2 people lose their lives in the TT Races on the Isle of Man. This figure rose to 4 in 2005.

'In 2003, the number of people injured by fireworks was 1,136.... Yet, fireworks and bonfire evenings can provide fun and entertainment for families at a time of year when the evenings are rather dark and gloomy. They literally light up the sky. As long as everyone follows the right safety procedures'.[Firework Safety - RoSPA's website]

'It should be appreciated that skateboarding is an exciting sport and that accidents will occasionally occur. RoSPA will normally Risk Assess all skate parks as being high risk. That does not mean that we do not approve of them, just that we recognise that accidents are going to occur'.[RoSPA information sheet 27].

Water temperature in Ullswater in July 2005 reached 27(C) in the top 2 feet - warmer than most swimming pools

These are published annually by RoSPA. You can either look at a simplified version (2002 now available) on their website for free or pay 16 for a CD with the full details. The figures are remarkably constant year on year. Total drownings (less suicides & homicides) are 427. From the RoSPA analysis the three largest categories are:

Fell in 80
Swimming (all waters) 34

Clearly lack of balance, carelessness or misjudgement together with alcohol are the main problems. Swimming comes third.

Car in canal
Only a very small fraction of UK drownings are related to swimming

The "swimming" figure includes people who drowned in the sea & swimming pools as well as rivers & lakes. After deducting the 8 who were under the influence of alcohol and 1 for the crew of a capsized boat who drowned while attempting to swim ashore we are left with 25 "Swimming" drownings per year. These are broken down as follows:

Rivers (freshwater)4
Lakes, reservoirs & canal 3
The sea 7
Estuaries & tidal rivers 4
Swimming pools 7

By comparison RoSPA lists 22 boating deaths, 9 sub-aqua and 20 in vehicles. However from listening to the radio or watching tv you might get the impression that not 25 as shown above, but 175, or even 450 people drown while swimming in rivers or lakes every year. You would be very wrong. The truth, as you can see, is nothing like either of these figures. The 450 figure (427 in 2002) is of course the total drowning figure. The 175 figure refers to river drownings and again it is a total figure covering all activities.

However, in addition to the above there were 17 who drowned after "Jumping in" out of which 4 had consumed alcohol.

Neck injuries: About 30 people (mostly 25 year old males) a year break their neck in "diving" accidents. Once again this is a coverall figure. We have to guess at river & lake situations: say 10. Very nasty. Don't, don't dive, or if you must then go & check out the water first of all.

Every drowning is a tragedy. Don't become a statistic yourself. 95% of the "Swimming" drownings were male. Beware of alcohol, bravado, carelessness, & recklessness. It can so easily lead to tragedy.

'Inland water in this country does not heat up' [Roger Vincent Water safety spokesman RoSPA June 2005]

Click here for 2008 data from other regions. 2007   2006   2005

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'Weil's disease is the secret weapon of whatever dark forces are opposed to wild swimming'
Roger Deakin Waterlog 2000:113

In the three year period between 1999 and 2001 there was one death from Weil's disease in England and Wales and a total of five from all Leptospiral infections. The frequent use of the risk posed by Weil's disease to frighten people off swimming in rivers and lakes is, by any stretch of the imagination, a wild scare story.

Weil's disease is one of a group of leptospiral bacterial infections commonly known as Leptospirosis. It is caught mainly when open wounds come into contact with animal urine including dogs and cattle. This can be in water or dump soil. The symptoms are often mild except when the person infected is already in poor health. However, Weil's disease, the most serious form of the disease, can be fatal even when caught by an otherwise healthy person. Leptospirosis is a notifyable disease which means that cases are logged by the Department of Health.

Average quarterly reported cases of leptospiral infections
England and Wales [1990-1995]
March 5.8
September 6.5
We need go no further than to point out that Weil's disease is rare. The risk of it being fatal is negligible and, as the table above indicates, it is not directly associated with swimming or any summertime water sports (hardly a peak during the summer months). Indeed, those mostly at risk are farm workers.
Ironically we find Weil's disease a very useful campaigning tool - whenever an opponent mentions the danger of contracting the disease while swimming we know that he is arguing from a position of ignorance.

Still being 'warned' about the danger of contracting Leptospirosis? Read this:
"Due to the fact that the rates of leptospirosis are very low in England and Wales, there is no reason why you cannot participate in freshwater recreational activities, such as swimming, sailing, water skiing or windsurfing.
However, if you are regularly involved in freshwater activities, it is a sensible precaution to cover any cuts and grazes with a waterproof dressing. Shower or bathe after your activity."
Copied from the NHS website: More...

Blue-green algae (BGA) is another favourite with those looking for excuses to ban swimming in their waters. BGA is a cyanobacteria - an organism which has properties of both bacteria and plants. Algae bloom of one variety or another is a common phenomenon in the lakes and rivers of lowland Britain during mid summer and early autumn. The hazards to swimmers can be summarised as follows:
  • Not all visible algae is BGA. Not all BGA is toxic.
  • The main danger is from high concentrations of decaying bloom which has a distinct blue-green colour.
  • Bloom of cyanobacteria may be associated with unpleasant odours and the offensive appearance of the shores, especially when scum of the organisms accumulate and decays. This creates an obviously unpleasant environment.
  • Contact with toxic scum can cause skin diseases and eye irritation (much the same as that which many of us regularly get from swimming in chlorinated indoor swimming baths...). Swallowing the scum, or spray containing it, can cause much more severe illness including liver damage. There are no recorded human fatalities caused by it in the course of recreational activities but it can be fatal to animals.
  • Non-visible BGA dispersed in the water can also be toxic and cause skin and eye irritation. The risk here is lower because of the relatively lower concentration of toxins but it can still cause problems in particular for those wearing wetsuits which can trap the toxic particles against the skin and through swallowing.
  • Follow the Environment Agency advice and keep well clear of visible bloom. Those with sensitive skins or of poor health should be particularly aware of the risks.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued guidelines regarding measures which should be taken in response to a given Cyanobacteria concentration in the water. Only Cyanobacterial scum (concentrations of well over 100,000 cells/ml) calls for possible prohibition of swimming and other water contact activities. Click here   to download the WHO guidelines.