Recreational water and your health

If you use water for recreational activities, you should be aware of possible health risks in and around the water.

These risks vary depending on the type of water you use and what activity you do.

The main rule is the more contact you have with water, the better the water quality should be.

Categories of recreational water activity

Recreational water activities are defined by the amount of contact you have with the water.

There are three main categories:

  • primary contact – includes swimming, surfing and other activities where:
    • you might plunge into the water
    • there is a risk you might swallow water
  • secondary contact – includes boating and fishing where:
    • you have direct contact with water but
    • the chance of swallowing water is unlikely
  • passive recreation - there is no direct contact. For example, walking and picnicking around the water.

Types of risks

Types of risks in recreational waters include:

  • accidents
  • exposure to jellyfish and crocodiles
  • microbiological organisms
  • chemicals
  • exposure to toxic algae and their products.

If recreational waters are contaminated, it can mean disease outbreaks and illness in the community.

The greatest potential risk comes from microbial contamination by organisms such as:

  • bacteria
  • viruses
  • algae.

What you should do

You should always follow warning signs placed around beach areas and other waterways.

If you are unsure about the quality of a waterway, you should avoid activities where you are likely to swallow water.

Guidelines for managers of recreational water bodies

You should read the guidance notes for recreational water quality in the NT PDF (280.0 KB) if you manage a recreational public water body such as:

  • coastal and estuarine waters including:
    • tidally washed pools and marine baths that interchange with sea water
  • freshwater bodies including:
    • rivers
    • streams
    • lakes
    • weirs
    • dams.

This document explains how to interpret and apply the national guidelines for managing risks in recreational water.

To read the national guidelines, go to the National Health and Medical Research Council website.


For more information, contact the Public Health Directorate by calling 08 8922 7152.

Last updated: 06 October 2020

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