Want to swim in the ocean?
Not so fast. Each week, before the weekend, the Environmental Protection Department rates the water quality at 33 beaches open to the public, using a four-grade classification system.
The system measures the levels of E. coli bacteria, which comes from human waste. It's not a question of whether it's present, it's a question of how much is in the water. According to the EPD:
Grades are calculated on the basis of the geometric mean of the E. coli counts on the five most recent sampling occasions.
The grades are: 1 (Good); 2 (Fair) and 3 (Poor). A Grade 4 beach is one with an E. coli count that exceeds the threshold, regardless of the geometric mean. Grade 4 beaches ought to be rated (Nasty).
Grade 1 beaches are considered safe because the E. coli mean count is less than or equal to 24 per 100ml of water. The number of cases of skin or gastrointestinal illnesses are "undetectable" for every 1,000 swimmers.
This means a Grade 1 beach isn't as big a toilet as a Grade 3, but all beaches fluctuate. A spokesman warned:
... many beaches were likely to be more polluted than their grades suggested during and after periods of heavy rain. Bathers should avoid swimming at beaches for up to three days after a storm or heavy rainfall.
Water quality is improving, but I'm not about to take a dip in the ocean; the government has a long way to go before it completes its restructuring of sewage treatment systems across Hong Kong.
Until then, swimmers can choose between a Grade 1 beach or a public swimming pool, and the beach may not be a bad choice.
The EPD doesn't monitor the urine content of the latter.