News 21 May 2024

Report finds UK sewage system must be upgraded to reduce risk of ingesting poo

21 May 2024

A new report, supported by Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, calls for an urgent upgrade to the UK’s sewage system to mitigate the risk of swimmers ingesting human waste in rivers and seas.

Although the evidence linking illness to sewage ingestion while swimming is limited, Sir Chris emphasised the growing number of Britons engaging in water activities and subsequent illnesses.

The report, prepared by a team of engineers, highlights that overloaded and underperforming sewers increase the likelihood of faecal contamination. This concern follows recent incidents such as the cryptosporidium outbreak in Brixham, Devon and millions of litres of raw sewage being discharged into Lake Windermere.

Originally designed to minimise health risks, sewage systems have seen more focus on cost and environmental impact over time. Sir Chris urged that public health should now be prioritised equally.

Human waste can harbour dangerous pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli, and norovirus, which can lead to severe gastrointestinal illnesses.

Public outcry over emergency sewage discharges has brought attention to the issue, yet Prof Whitty noted that even treated sewage, which is regularly released, still poses a health threat. The risk is heightened during hot, dry conditions when water levels drop and sewage concentration increases.

The Royal Academy of Engineering-led report recommends various measures to address the UK’s deteriorating water infrastructure, including more frequent and comprehensive water quality testing, improved maintenance of wastewater systems, and greater transparency in water quality data.

Charles Watson, chairman of the River Action campaign, described the report as a “major wake-up call”, criticising past political failures to safeguard public health from sewage pollution.

In response, a Water UK spokesperson said, “There is an urgent need to invest in our water system. Water companies have a plan with proposals to double the current level of spending between now and 2030… Public health is a major part of the next phase of the programme, with bathing areas heavily prioritised for investment.”

The government’s environment department also announced upcoming consultations on new bathing water regulations, emphasising ongoing infrastructure improvements aimed at significantly reducing sewage spills.

[Image created via MidJourney]