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Living in Switzerland For Members

Are Swiss lakes and rivers clean enough to swim in?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Are Swiss lakes and rivers clean enough to swim in?
A boy jumps into a Swiss lake. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

When it's hot outside, you might feel like swimming in — or at least dipping your feet into — Switzerland’s abundant waterways. But is it safe for you to do so?

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Lakes and rivers are abundant in Switzerland and, unlike most things in this country, swimming in them is free.

In fact, some of the rivers that flow through Switzerland’s cities provide not only recreational swimming opportunities, but also a different kind of ‘public transport’: instead of using buses or trams to get to work, people swim there.

This is the case in Zurich’s Limmat river, Basel’s Rhine, and Bern’s Aar.

Though this may sound mad, many people find floating to and from work more pleasant than using the terrestrial mode of transport.

READ ALSO: Do people really swim to work in Zurich? 

(And no, they don’t arrive at the office dripping wet: they have a waterproof, rope-tied swimming bag in which they stow their day clothes and other belongings).

As for the lakes, a number of public beaches and other water-accessible spots provide plenty of refreshing opportunities during hot summer days.

Yes, but is this safe?

According to the Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU), “thanks to various protective measures and major advances in wastewater treatment in recent decades, water quality in Swiss rivers and lakes is now very high and virtually all are clean enough to swim in".

That is generally true, but not always or everywhere.

Waterways do become polluted with substances that could be risky to health, particularly for people who are sensitive to environmental toxins.

These are some current examples:

Lake Geneva

As has been the case in previous summers, “with the arrival of summer temperatures, the risk of proliferation of cyanobacteria in bodies of water and around lakes increases,” the canton of Vaud, which shares the Lake Geneva shoreline on the Swiss side with Geneva, said in a press release on Tuesday.

Ingestion of this toxin-producing bacteria "can result in the death of pets, such as dogs," the canton said.

Unsurprisingly, it also affects people. 

"In humans, the symptoms of poisoning are variable, ranging from gastrointestinal symptoms (stomach ache, diarrhoea, vomiting) to flu-like symptoms (fever, headache and sore throat, joint pain) or skin irritation," said the canton. "While most of the time the effects are mild, young children are more affected, as they are particularly exposed to the risk of ingestion during swimming.”

The good news is that cyanobacteria are short-lived and disappear quickly.

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The Rhine

Every year, 14,000 tonnes of plastic are dumped into Swiss soil and water, according to the federal research laboratory. 

They come from many sources, such as cosmetics or synthetic fiber clothing.

They are particularly abundant in rivers near major cities, with the Rhine near Basel containing the most microplastics — around 4.5 tonnes.

These substances don’t pose major threats to health in general, unless they are accidentally swallowed.

How can you know if the waterway in your area is safe for swimming?

The BAFU website has a colour-coded map indicating which rivers and lakes are clean and which aren’t at any given moment.

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