Christopher Swain: The Man Who Swims in Toxic Sludge to Save the Planet

Environmental activist Christopher Swain is swimming through some of the world's most polluted bodies of water in order to raise awareness of the need to reform our environmental practices before it's too late.

In most parts of the U.S., it’s starting to get pretty hot these days. So the idea of taking a refreshing dip in the ocean sounds like a pretty great idea.

But what if that water happens to be filled with sewage, toxic algae, and other assorted garbage? Think you might take a pass? We can’t say that we’d blame you.

To most of us, there’s nothing appealing about the idea of swimming through an ocean of toxic sludge—yet that’s what environmental activist Christopher Swain is set on doing. While his mission may seem dirty, he’s got a noble cause: he wants to raise awareness of the need to improve environmental practices, before there is no clean water left in the world.

Swain has been focused on his mission for quite some time. In 2003 and 2004, he swam the length of four of America’s polluted waterways: the Charles River, Lake Champlain, the Hudson River, and the Columbia River, typically swimming about seven miles every day. Each day, Swain took photographs of the dirty waterscapes, and jotted extensive notes in a journal about each of the trips. “The water boasts the bouquet of a pond life smoothie: notes of mud, plants, tannin, poop, and gasoline, are all in evidence,” he wrote of his journey down Lake Champlain.

Swimming in this sort of pollution sounds like it could be hazardous to your health, and Swain knows for a fact that it is: despite taking frequent breaks to gargle with hydrogen peroxide, he’s gotten countless ear, respiratory, and lymph node infections. But, as he told ABC News in 2004, “I realized that if somebody doesn’t put themselves on the line, nothing changes.”

Swain, 40, is a father of two, and is passionate about changing the world for his children by making the younger generation aware of how important it is to keep the earth clean. After his toxic river tour of 2004, he spent the winter traveling to schools all around the country, educating over 20,000 children about his mission and helping teachers plan environmental curricula for future courses.

But Swain’s dirty water work still wasn’t done. This year, he decided to set off on an even more ambitious and dangerous mission, setting off from the polluted harbor of Marblehead, Massachusetts on Earth Day to begin a 1,000-mile swim to Washington, DC, which will take a year to complete. Along the way, he’s stopping in to visit 2,000 classrooms to educate students about the hazards of electronic waste, and to help them launch their own projects to help build a healthier world.

Spending so much time in polluted waterways may not seem so safe or pleasant, but Swain truly believes in the work that he’s doing, and knows that his actions will make a meaningful difference in helping us change our environmental practices.

“It’s not just about the Charles River of the Hudson or the Columbia River,” he told ABC News. “This is about all the waterways in the world. We’re going to have to see the connections between what we do and what happens with the water and the Earth and the places that we live. If we can make that leap, we’re going to be happier people and we’re going to be living in a better world. I, for one, hope we get there.”