Prospective epidemiological studies of beach water pollution were conducted in Hong Kong in the summers of 1986 and 1987. For the main study in 1987, a total of 18741 usable responses were obtained from beachgoers on nine beaches at weekends. The study indicated the overall perceived symptom rates for gastrointestinal, ear, eye, skin, respiratory, fever and total illness were significantly higher for swimmers than non-swimmers; and the swimming-associated symptom rates for gastrointestinal, skin, respiratory and total illness were higher at 'barely acceptable' beaches than at 'relatively unpolluted' ones. Escherichia coli was found to be the best indicator of the health effects associated with swimming in the beaches of Hong Kong. It showed the highest correlation with combined swimming-associated gastroenteritis and skin symptom rates when compared with other microbial indicators. A linear relationship between E. coli and the combined symptom rates was established. Staphylococci were correlated with ear, respiratory and total illness, but could not be used for predicting swimming-associated health risks. They should be used to complement E. coli. The setting of health-related bathing-water quality standards based on such a study is discussed.