Environment

'Wake up and smell the s**t': Sewage dumped into UK waterways over 1,000 times a day, report says

Our 19th century plumbing infrastructure is not equipped to deal with a growing population, so the Environmental Agency allows water companies to release overflow after heavy rains. But the consequences for swimmers can be dire

Surfers against Sewage have released their annual report. Credit: Mike Guest

Thousands of Brits became ill after swimming in polluted water last year, a damning new report has warned – and your favourite bathing spot could be “suffocating in sewage”.

Most inland English swim spots boast unsafe levels of pollution, campaign group Surfers Against Sewage has claimed.

In a survey of a representative sample of popular bathing and watersport areas, SAS found some 60% to have pollution at unsafe levels. The astonishing figure exposes a “shocking” failure to protect water-users , Giles Bristow, CEO of SAS, said.

“Yet again, our annual water quality report reveals the complacency and disregard of governments, water companies and regulators towards the health of rivers and coastlines in the UK – and by extension people’s health,” he said.

“How much do our blue spaces need to suffocate in sewage before those we elect to keep us safe and protect our environment wake up and smell the shit?”

Since last October, 1,924 people reported getting ill after entering the water across the UK – and 60% of these reports came after dips in “excellent”-rated bathing waters. This data only relates to cases reported to SAS, suggesting the total figure is much higher.

Which UK bathing waters are dirty?

Our 19th century plumbing infrastructure is not equipped to deal with a growing population, so the Environmental Agency allows water companies to release overflow after heavy rains.

But the consequences for swimmers can be dire. Britain’s lakes, rivers and seas are regularly swamped with excrement and chemical effluent.

The new SAS report analyses UK bathing waters over 2023, a year when untreated sewage was discharged more than 399,000 times into UK waterways. This is the equivalent of more than 1,000 discharge events every day.

SAS sampled water at 40 popular swimming locations around England, all of which are popular despite not being formally designated ‘bathing waters’. Some 24 of these locations (60%) would be deemed ‘poor quality’ by the Environmental Agency if they had been official swimming spots, researchers found.

The EA said it “shared” SAS’s commitment to improving water quality and conceded there is “more to do.

What happens if you swim in sewage?

In 2022, 93% of designated bathing waters met the highest standards of ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. But how clean are they really? Over the last year, nearly 2,000 swimmers reported illness to SAS, and 60% of these reports came from waters with an “excellent” designation.

Robbie – one of the individuals who fell ill – said he no longer “trusts the water”.

“It had been about two hours after swimming and I started to feel ill, a bit feverish,” he recalled. “About two hours later, my son came downstairs and found me lying on the floor, waving my arms about, not making any sense. I don’t remember any of that. It has quite massively impacted me.”

Reuben, a surfer in Devon, contracted labyrinthitis (an inner ear infection) which has developed into a chronic condition.

“I have never been anxious about anything in my life, but this experience has definitely made me worried that symptoms will come back when driving, surfing, at work or any situation where vertigo could be dangerous,” he said.

From the sickness reports submitted this year, a total of 1,987.5 days were taken off work – the equivalent of over five years.

Who is paying for sewage pumping?

Public outcry over Britain’s polluted waterways is growing, as campaigners call on companies to fix the antiquated waterways.

Earlier this month, Ofwat fined Thames Water £73.7m – paid out to customers in the form of lower bills – as punishment for failing to hit targets on pollution. At least 72bn litres of sewage have been discharged into the Thames since 2020.

But those fines pale in comparison to company profits. Last year, water companies paid out £965m to shareholders.

Water minister Rebecca Pow defended the government’s “Plan for Water”, conceding that the volume of  pollution in UK waters is “unacceptable”.

“[Our] plan includes targets so strict they are leading to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £60bn over 25 years – which in turn will result in hundreds of thousands fewer sewage discharges,” they said.

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