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Is the Charles River safe to swim in? "It's been getting cleaner," says EPA expert

How safe is the Charles River for swimming? An environmental expert weighs in
How safe is the Charles River for swimming? An environmental expert weighs in 03:16

BOSTON - During a heat wave in June, Boston residents are desperate for relief from the hot weather but is the Charles River safe to swim in?

Limited options for cooling off

"They're just trying to have fun," said 14-year-old East Boston resident Sohaib, talking about his experience using the harbor to cool off. "People just jumping off and then there's a little ladder."

Others head to Boston beaches but this year, some have closed due to high levels of bacteria or packed parking lots, leaving residents with limited options.

"We had about 100 boats go out yesterday, so lots of people enjoying the nice weather," said Evelyn Pickard, who spends her summers working at Paddle Boston, a kayaking company along the Charles. "When you're up on land, you have the sun reflecting back on you, off the pavement. On the river, it's more open, there's nothing blocking the wind from blowing on you, it can be a little cooler."

How safe is the Charles to swim in?

But how safe is it to spend time around Boston's bodies of water?

"It's been getting cleaner," said EPA environmental engineer Tom Faber. He said state agencies have invested millions to remove sewage from waterways, causing most of the pollution.

Prior to 1988, 1.7 billion gallons per year of bacteria-filled discharge was released into the Charles River, down to 20 million gallons in 2014. Faber said it's only getting safer.

Despite it being one of the cleanest urban rivers in the country, Boston residents still have some questions about how clean the Charles really is.

"I did do a project in the third grade and we tested the water and it's not sanitary at all," said Cambridge native Avianne. "I feel like if I'm going into water, I need to be able to see my feet."

Every year, the Charles River Conservancy hosts a City Splash, allowing public swimming in the Charles, which is usually prohibited. This year's event is July 13 and those interested in swimming in the Charles can sign up here.

If you have a question you'd like us to look into, please email   

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