Sewage-polluted water: surfers are particularly exposed to toxic wastewater | Photo: SAS

Surfing on sewage-polluted coastlines has consequences. Believe it or not, riding waves in unsafe waters could be a life-changing experience.

When we think about people who lived a few centuries ago, we tend to believe we live in a world of progress, prosperity, and well-being.

The state of enchantment and illusion with everything artificial intelligence (AI), the obsession with smartphones and social media, and the addiction to fast food and processed drinks have driven the focus off the simple yet basic things of life.

When did you last go to a beach on a winter day and not see plastic trash lying on the sand?

When was the last time you were sure you were surfing in pure, clean waters, free from wastewater contaminants?

Maybe none of us can tell.

To get things started, here's what surfers are exposed to, for instance, when paddling out immediately after it rains:

  • Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus);
  • Solids (including organic matter);
  • Pathogens (including bacteria, viruses, and protozoa);
  • Helminths (intestinal worms and worm-like parasites);
  • Oils and greases;
  • Runoff from streets, parking lots, and roofs;
  • Heavy metals (including mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium, copper);
  • Many toxic chemicals (including PCBs, PAHs, dioxins, furans, pesticides, phenols, and chlorinated organics);

Extinction Means Forever: contaminated waters eliminates life and marine ecosystems | Photo: McBurney/SAS

The Real Consequences of Surfing in Polluted Water

Human exposure to this cocktail of toxic components leads to temporary, irreversible, and sometimes life-threatening health conditions, diseases, and disorders.

It's hard not to find sewage and wastewater toxins in urban and semi-urban coastlines. The differences may only be the toxicity levels.

Here's an example brought to you by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) from a supposedly First World country.

Sicknesses in the UK due to sewage pollution reported to SAS reached 1,924 cases in 2023 - nearly triple the number of cases reported a year prior.

The consequences are real.

Reuben Santer, a physics teacher at a secondary school in Exeter, was forced to stop working after contracting labyrinthitis (an inner ear infection) following a surf at Saunton Beach in Devon.

Doctors confirmed the infection was due to a virus or bacteria entering Santer's ear during his surf.

The infection later developed into an incurable condition called Ménierè's disease.

"I have never been anxious about anything in my life," stated Reuben Santer.

"But this experience has definitely made me worried that symptoms will come back when driving, surfing, at work, or in any situation where vertigo could be dangerous."

While water companies profit from irresponsible business practices, regulators and authorities close their eyes and neglect the population's right to water quality standards.

Surfers are particularly in danger of contracting severe health issues after being exposed to sewage-polluted waters.

Here are the most common and frequent complications:

Tell the Truth: Surfers Against Sewage's (SAS) annual water quality report explores the shocking state of UK bathing waters | Photo: SAS

1. Stomach Upsets

The Cause

Swallowing water contaminated with bacteria or viruses can cause stomach gastroenteritis, i.e., stomach upsets.

These unfriendly organisms - introduced to your insides via swallowed seawater - bed down and grow inside your digestive system, which causes the stomach, small intestine, and occasionally the colon to inflame.

The Symptoms

Gastroenteritis typically results in vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea for around 12 to 72 hours.

Viral infections usually resolve quicker than bacterial ones, lasting up to four weeks.

The Treatment

Most people with gastroenteritis get better without treatment and don't need medication.

The symptoms cause you to lose a lot of fluid, so dehydration is a side effect to watch out for - sustained sipping is the order of the day.

It's generally uncommon for adults to need admission to a hospital for intravenous fluid to replace the fluid they have lost when suffering from gastroenteritis.


2. Skin Infections

The Cause

Cuts and grazes on our skin allow bacteria and viruses from sewage pollution to enter the body, which can then result in an infection.

The Symptoms

A painful and itchy rash can develop, with the skin becoming hot and swollen.

The wound may also start weeping pus, which is the product of your immune system's attempt to destroy the multiplying bacteria.

The Treatment

If left on its own and kept clean and dry, a minor skin infection should get better on its own.

But some can progress and make you feel unwell or cause a fever. Cleaning the area thoroughly is very important; if you're worried, seek medical advice.

3. Ear Infections

The Cause

The longer that water from the sea and rivers hangs about in your ear, the higher your chance of developing an outer ear infection.

This is why people who suffer from surfer's ear are prone to infection because it slows down the ear's ability to drain water.

The more bacteria and viruses present in the water, the higher the chance of infection.

The Symptoms

Ear infections cause pain in the affected ear, resulting in temporary hearing loss.

If left untreated, the infection can become extremely uncomfortable and spread to the skin around the ear and face.

This can make you feel extremely unwell and cause a fever.

The Treatment

Don't be tempted to unleash the cotton buds, as cleaning inside the ear can irritate the skin and increase the chance of infection.

Hearing loss resolves once the infection clears.

Unfortunately, antibiotics don't make much difference to a simple outer ear infection, but they can help prevent a persistent one from spreading to surrounding skin.

Wearing earplugs designed for surfing dramatically reduces the chances of initial infection.


4. Eye Infections

The Cause

Sewage water contains bacteria and viruses that can infect any inflamed area around your eye.

Adenoviruses, in particular, have a reputation for causing nasty eye infections.

The Symptoms

The tissue surrounding the eye (the conjunctiva) becomes red and swollen, causing conjunctivitis - which results in watery, weepy eyes.

Eye infections are often very uncomfortable - it can sometimes feel like you have small grains of glass in the eye.

Usually, the infection starts in only one eye but is easily spread to the other.

The Treatment

Eye infections are easy to treat with eye drops, but if left untreated, they can progress and become extremely unpleasant.

If you have difficulty seeing or reading normally with the affected eye, or there is pain during eye movement, then you should seek urgent medical attention.

Regular hand washing is essential to prevent the transfer of infection to your other eye - and the eyes of others.

Wastewater: discharging untreated sewage into water bodies is a crime | Photo: Shutterstock

5. Sore Throat

The Cause

Viruses found in contaminated water can infect your upper airway. The common cold is an example of this.

The Symptoms

A throat infection causes pain when swallowing.

It is extremely common to suffer from common cold symptoms after surfing or swimming in sewage-contaminated water.

The Treatment

The illness is usually mild and resolves after a few days.


6. Chest Infections

The Cause

If water is contaminated by sewage, pathogens can be inhaled and potentially infect the lungs and airway.

Due to a lack of research, it is not known how common chest infections are for people who swim or surf in sewage-contaminated water.

The Symptoms

Chest infections cause coughs and can result in difficulty in breathing. An infection can be extremely severe and can make you very unwell.

The Treatment

If your symptoms worsen, it's best to seek medical advice to avoid developing a serious medical condition.

Sewage: responsible for gastroenteritis, sore throat, skin, eye and chest infections, hepatitis, and E. coli | Photo: Shutterstock

7. Hepatitis

The Cause

Hepatitis A is a virus frequently found in sewage. Sewage workers are advised to vaccinate themselves against the virus.

So, too, are surfers who regularly surf in sewage-polluted water.

The Symptoms

Symptoms include a reduced appetite, nausea, vomiting, fever, shivers, weakness, headache, general aches and pains, and abdominal pain.

Your stools (the medical term for poo) can become pale, and your urine can become dark.

If Hepatitis A is able to establish itself properly, it can make itself at home in your body for weeks - which is not good news.

During this time, the liver may deteriorate significantly in its ability to perform its normal functions.

Liver failure, although only occurring in 1 percent of cases of Hepatitis A, is an extremely dangerous condition.

If hepatitis becomes severe, it can result in confusion, a reduced level of consciousness, or even a coma.

The Treatment

The time the virus takes to reveal itself can take from 15 to 50 days.

During this time, the virus replicates in the liver and sheds itself into your feces.

In children, the disease is usually mild but can be much more serious and prolonged in adults.

Virtually all people who suffer from Hepatitis A go on to make a full recovery with treatment. If you are concerned that you may have contracted hepatitis, speak to your GP as soon as possible.

Water pollution: surfers are exposed to toxic nutrients, solids, pathogens, helminths, oils and greases, run-off, heavy metals, and chemicals | Photo: Creative Commons

8. E. coli

The Cause

E. coli is spread by the fecal-oral route. Any way feces can find its way into your mouth can potentially spread E coli.

Of course, this includes swimming in sewage-contaminated sea and river water.

E. coli is often present in your gut, but some strains produce a protein that acts as a toxin in the human body.

The Symptoms

This toxin causes abdominal pain, aggressive diarrhea, and vomiting.

If it progresses, the toxin can cause damage to blood vessels in the skin, causing a distinctive rash.

It can also spread to the kidneys, resulting in severe and potentially life-threatening illness.

How E. coli affects you will depend on the strain and whether it can out-compete the E. coli that already exists in your gut.

You may get off lightly with slightly runnier stools. Only a few strains of E. coli have the potential to cause significant harm.

The Treatment

If you suspect you have E. coli, please seek medical assistance immediately.

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