Water companies have been releasing sewage on to beaches and in rivers even when it is not raining, according to a report from Surfers Against Sewage.
Sewage spills are only supposed to happen under exceptional circumstances; when it is raining so heavily that the system cannot cope with the amount of water and effluent being spewed at once.
However, there have been anecdotal accounts of local sewage outflows spilling human waste into local waterways even when it is not raining. Now, SAS claims that that these ‘dry spills’ are happening routinely, against regulations which stipulate outflows should only occur during “unusually heavy rainfall”.
Analysing meteorological data from the Met Office as well as spillage data, SAS found that 146 dry spills were detected over a 12-month period, with 95 of these at locations where water quality is classified as “excellent”. Southern Water, the worst offender, was responsible for four times as many dry spills as the next worst offender, South West Water.
Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy at SAS, said: “Over the last year, the UK public has made clear their disgust at what’s happening to our rivers and seas, and yet water companies continue to pollute at will. It’s especially alarming to uncover evidence of potentially illegal activity by water companies in the form of dry spills, which are not permitted under current regulations. Shareholders and CEOs are unashamedly profiteering off pollution.”
“It’s high time the government stepped up and took real action to curb the destructive and selfish behaviour of the water companies responsible for this literal shit storm.”
According to data from The Environment Agency, sewage has been dumped into the ocean and rivers around the UK more than 770,000 times over the course of 2020 and 2021 – the equivalent of almost 6 million hours.
Sewage in waterways is also making people sick, the report claims.
As part of its water quality report, SAS has also analysed data from 720 sickness reports submitted to its reporting system. The data found that over a third (39%) of sickness cases correlated to sewage discharge alerts, while 63% of cases that were reported to a doctor were attributed to poor water quality.
The most common illness reported after people swam in the sea or rivers was gastroenteritis, with two in three people reporting symptoms associated with the condition. Ear, nose and throat infections were common too, with respiratory, skin and urinary tract infections also reported.
Over half of the sickness reports related to swims at locations classified as “excellent” under the government’s testing regime.
Dr Anne Leonard, an environmental epidemiologist and microbiologist based at the University of Exeter, said: “We’ve known for over 100 years that sewage contains disease-causing microorganisms, and that ingesting water contaminated with this kind of waste causes infections. These infections may be mild, self-limiting illnesses but they can also be really severe infections that require medical treatment.”
Swimmers have reported anger and upset after having to change how they interact with the water following illness.
Julia Walker, a social worker based in Shoreham, West Sussex, said: “I use the sea to help manage stress from my job as a social worker. In September I went for a swim in a popular spot prior to starting a new job. That evening I experienced diarrhoea and stabbing pain in my kidneys. The doctor confirmed I had a bacterial and a kidney infection. They felt that it was very unusual to have both at the same time but said that this was likely caused by swimming in contaminated water.
“I was unwell for six days, which impacted on my new role. It took me a couple of months to get back in the sea, and now I only swim with my head above water for fear of becoming ill again. It makes me very angry that the water companies are affecting how I use the water.”
A spokesperson at Water UK, said: “Companies agree there is an urgent need to tackle storm overflows. They are set to launch one of the country’s largest ever infrastructure programmes, which, if approved by regulators, will deliver £56bn of improvements for our rivers and seas. That builds on at least £3bn of improvements in the last couple of years alone.
“To accelerate progress further, we need government to end housing developers’ uncontrolled connections to sewers without first knowing their capacity, and to end the flushing of wet wipes made from materials that cause blockages and fatbergs. Both are major causes of sewer overloading and spills. We also need government to implement existing legislation in order to increase the use of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) on new developments as a means of reducing the volume of rainwater entering the sewer system.”
Southern Water told the Guardian: “Storm releases, which go a long way to reduce the impact of the type of flooding we have seen recently, and which are permitted by The Environmental Agency, reduced by nearly 50% this year compared to last, in part due to a dry summer. We’re investing £2bn to improve environmental performance and further reduce their use, by increasing storage capacity and working with partners to reduce the rain runoff entering the system.
“Our data on storm overflows, including unconsented spills, is submitted to The Environment Agency. Our annual bathing water update details how we are working to create healthier rivers and seas. This improvement is being achieved through record additional investment to reduce pollution and prevent flooding, industry-leading monitoring and transparency on spill reporting, and the exploration of innovative, nature-based and engineering solutions.”