Breaking News: We've (Probably) All Swum in Poop Before

Where were you when you heard about the Paris Poop Protest? If it's here and now, allow us to provide some context. In preparation for open-water events at the 2024 Paris Olympics, the French government spent upwards of $1.5 billion trying to make the Seine swimmable. As a form of protest, Parisians threatened to . . . well . . . poop in the river. This included a viral website and corresponding hashtag reading #JeChieDansLaSeineLe23Juin (I shit in the Seine on June 23).

The protest predictably earned plenty of coverage, and — as it was designed to do — it got us thinking. Not just about whether it was defensible for the French government to spend so much money preparing its capital for the Olympic Games, but also about what would happen to the athletes if they did swim in poopy water. In fact, what would happen to any of us? Finally, we arrived at the bottom of what had become an anxious spiral: should we be worried about poop in our typical swimming spots?

Experts Featured in This Article

Amesh A. Adalja, MD, is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Have We All Swum in Poop?

Much like the Seine, the answer is a bit murky. "Water is never sterile. There are millions upon millions of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes present," says Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "The key thing is making sure that the levels are not representative of major fecal contamination, which could lead to human illness."

It's unclear whether or not Parisians followed up on their poopy plans, but considering that rain often causes the sewers to overflow into the Seine, it's possible that it wouldn't have made a tremendous difference if they did. In fact, according to an analysis from June 21 (pre-poop protest), two kinds of fecal bacteria were already found in the Seine, including E. Coli and enterococci.

Unfortunately, this isn't just a Paris problem.

In 2022, Environment America found that 1,761 out of 3,192 beaches in the US (55 percent) reached potentially unsafe levels of fecal contamination on at least one of the days they were tested.

More recently, the Surfrider Foundation's 2023 Clean Water Report found that out of 9,538 water test results, 67 percent indicated low bacteria levels, 11 percent indicated medium bacteria levels, and 22 percent measured high bacteria levels that exceeded state standards for recreational waters. The Foundation also noted that at least one high bacteria result was found in 64 percent of the 567 beaches tested, pointing to sewage spills and inadequate infrastructure as some possible contributors to this pollution. (They didn't specify what type of bacteria they found, but the report did note that, "Sewage spills and infrastructure failures release over 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage into surface waters every year," so do with that what you will.)

Given these numbers, it's worth asking — what happens if you do swim in poop? "Bacterial levels in swimming water are more [of a] surrogate for fecal contamination occurring," Dr. Adalja explains. "This confers a risk, not only of getting bacterial infections such as E. Coli, but all sorts of pathogens, such as norovirus." That's not to mention the GI issues that could occur if water is swallowed (stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea), or the complications of an open wound becoming infected.

If you're worried you might be swimming in contaminated water, Dr. Adalja recommends cleaning any open cuts or abrasions and applying antibiotic ointment to avoid infection. He also points out that most swimming areas in lakes or rivers post fecal coliform counts, which can help you see how contaminated they really are.

In the meantime? Probably best to stay out of the Seine.

Chandler Plante is an assistant editor for PS Health & Fitness. Previously, she worked as an editorial assistant for People magazine and contributed to Ladygunn, Millie, and Bustle Digital Group. In her free time, she overshares on the internet, creating content about chronic illness, beauty, and disability.