British surfers fall ill after sewage pollution incidents

November 7, 2020 | Environment
Surfers Against Sewage: British water companies are putting the health of water sports participants at risk | Photo: SAS

A new environmental report released by ocean conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) reveals water companies are routinely discharging untreated sewage into UK waters.

This is polluting the environment and placing the health of surfers, open water swimmers, bathers, stand-up paddleboarders, and other water users at risk.

The Water Quality Report reveals that water companies were responsible for almost 3,000 raw sewage pollution incidents into bathing waters in England and Wales from licensed Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) from October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2020, impacting some of the most popular beaches in the country.

The report showcases 153 health reports submitted to SAS by water users after falling ill from using the water.

Reports included cases of gastroenteritis; ear, nose, and throat infections; eye infections, and in some cases, long-term health effects.

Research by the European Centre for Environment & Human Health has also found that water users have three times the level of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in their gut, highlighting that regular bathers are exposing themselves to bacteria, which has become resistant to even the most clinically effective antibiotics.

The state of UK water quality is therefore putting water users at ever-increasing risk.

Raw sewage pollution: British bathing waters are not a safe place to be | Photo: SAS

Water Sports Participants at Risk

Surfers Against Sewage tracks these discharges with real-time data obtained from water companies and provides pollution alerts from regulators for over 370 beaches through the Safer Seas Service app.

Analysis from this reveals that 70 percent of sewage pollution notifications were issued outside the official bathing season.

Campaigners are calling for all water companies to provide year-round, real-time sewage discharge notifications to protect the burgeoning perennial swimming, surfing, and water sports community.

"As a canoeist, being on the water is a huge part of my life, and like many people, I see rivers and the ocean as precious beyond measure," notes Etienne Stott, London 2012 canoe slalom gold medallist. 

"It's hugely concerning to read the report and see just how much sewage is being pumped into our waterways, and it's even more concerning to see that these leaks are going unreported."

"I'm absolutely committed to this campaign for greater environmental awareness and transparency when it comes to our waters, as everybody should have the chance to safely enjoy the great outdoors."

"Keeping water users safe from illness due to poor water quality in rivers and the ocean is core to Surfers Against Sewage's DNA," adds Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage.

"Polluted waters kickstarted the organization into action 30 years ago and is an issue that worryingly continues to affect water users today."

"Everybody should be able to enjoy our oceans and rivers safely; however, this report shows that water companies are using these like sewers and consistently putting profit before protecting the planet."

This is not only detrimental to our natural environment, but it's putting our health at risk, and this feels particularly horrifying in a year where we are all battling the COVID19 pandemic, a virus that is being tracked through sewage works."

Water Quality Testing and Bathing Water Classification

The report also highlights that Southern Water has failed to issue sewage spill notifications for the majority of 2020 - with 21 percent of total reports of ill-health submitted from within Southern Water's boundaries.

In comparison to the 690 sewage spill notifications issued by Southern Water in 2019, they only managed to issue 79 alerts this year, stating "notifications should have been sent, but frustratingly they weren't."

In addition to sewage discharge notifications, a further 2,642 pollution risk warnings were issued by regulators, indicating coastal pollution from agriculture and urban environments and a potential risk to public health.

SAS says there are fundamental flaws in the water quality testing regime and bathing water classification process.

Some of the worst pollution incidents are being wilfully ignored through 'discounting' in water quality tests carried out by regulators.

As a result, it is suggested that 65 bathing waters received higher classifications than they should.

Despite some water quality progress over the last 30 years, the UK still ranks a woeful 25th out of 30 European countries for bathing water quality.

Almost 35 percent of bathing waters still need some form of improvement to be elevated to the "excellent" standard.

Surfers Against Sewage: the environmentalists demand higher water quality testing standards | Photo: SAS

The Need for Higher Water Quality Testing Standards

Campaigners are calling for an enhanced water-quality testing regime providing a true picture of the UK's water quality, testing for emerging viruses and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as well as accurate real-time water quality information available all-year-round for all UK inland and coastal Bathing Waters.

They also demand world-leading water quality legislation with an environment bill that exceeds EU water quality standards as well as sewage legislation setting ambitious and legally binding targets to end untreated sewage discharge in all bathing waters by 2030.

Environmentalists note that we also need legislation that holds the same standards for both inland and coastal waters.

SAS also wants Nature-based solutions to sewage pollution with increased investment and associated targets for the restoration of natural habitats to reduce pressure on the water systems and help prevent sewer overflows whilst increasing biodiversity and tackling climate change.

Further investment from water companies in sewerage infrastructure is critical to eventually end the use of emergency sewage overflows.

Campaigners will hand in the #EndSewagePollution petition to Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice MP, digitally on Tuesday, November 10, 2020.

The petition represents tens of thousands of voices and cross-sector organizations backed by millions, including the Rivers Trust, Outdoor Swimming Society, British Canoeing, and the Wildlife & Countryside Link.

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, which was set for its second reading in the House of Commons on November 13, has now been pushed back to January 15, 2021, due to the national lockdown.

Proposed by the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Philip Dunne MP, the bill seeks to provide a much needed and essential framework for water industry reform to end sewage pollution, restore England's rivers and protect water users.

Having supported the drafting of the Bill, The #EndSewagePollution coalition is encouraging the public to contact their local MP to support the Bill ahead of the debate.

"As an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans, this journey has taken me all over the world, from the icy waters of the poles to glacial lakes high in the Himalayas and to many of the world's great rivers," concludes Lewis Pugh, UN Patron of the Oceans, who wrote the foreword to the Water Quality Report, and who himself became ill after swimming the full length of the River Thames in 2006.

"However, I've only swum down four rivers, and for a good reason. On each occasion, I became violently sick due to pollution. Two of these rivers were in the UK."

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