Wild swimmers are getting sick from sewage, campaigners say

Sewage pumped into rivers and seas is increasingly making wild swimmers sicker, according to an environmental charity.

Photographer Alexander Ward had no idea he was putting himself in danger when he waded into the River Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire last September.

He was photographing wild swimmers for a project and didn’t realize he had a cut on his leg.

After developing flu symptoms, the 38-year-old, from Tattingstone, Suffolk, called NHS 111, who told him to go to hospital urgently.

Doctors said he suspected leptospirosis, also known as Weil’s disease. They put him in isolation and gave him antibiotics for two days.

“It was quite scary and since then I haven’t gone into fresh water again,” he said.

“I only go in salt water now and it’s usually at local places where I know they’re not directly near sewage outlets.

“I’m really conscious of that.”

The charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has received 720 reports of illness in the past year, submitted via its Safer Seas & Rivers Service app, which alerts swimmers when water companies release sewage.

That was an increase compared to the previous year when 286 people reported being ill after entering the water, and the same time period in 2019-2020 when there were 124 reports of illness.

The charity said the number of app users had increased during that period, so it was not an accurate comparison, but urgent action was needed to stop more swimmers falling ill.

Amy Slack, head of campaigns and policy at SAS, said: “Water companies are still choosing to dump sewage into the ocean and rivers across the country, leaving us literally sick with sewage.”

Gastroenteritis was the most common illness reported by wild swimmers to the charity after entering the water.

Ear, nose and throat infections were also common, while respiratory, skin and urinary tract infections were also reported, he said.

Ness Woodcock-Dennis, a public health nurse and lecturer in nursing, is currently recovering from an eye infection after swimming in the River Stour at Manningtree in Essex.

“It got so bad I couldn’t see and I had to go to hospital,” she said.

“I’m very careful and I didn’t put my head under the water because of the risks. I was wearing contact lenses and I had a flash in the eye. I was worried as soon as it happened,” she said.

She swims with a group of more than 100 local swimmers known as the Manningtree Mermaids, who have staged several protests over water quality.

“Swimming in the sea is our birthright and we shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick,” she said.

“It’s frustrating because my swimming is already limited and I never swim during or after heavy rain, when I know the water companies are allowed to discharge sewage.”

Julia Walker, a social worker based in Shoreham, West Sussex, developed a bacterial and kidney infection in September after swimming in the sea.

“It took me a few months to get back in the sea, and now I only swim with my head above water in case I get sick again. It makes me very angry that the bodies of water are affecting me how I use the water,” she said.

SAS has issued 9,216 sewage pollution alerts in the past year, it says in a new report. The campaign group monitors water quality at more than 400 sites around the UK’s rivers and coasts.

Water firms are only allowed to release sewage in unusually heavy rain, but SAS said it had found evidence of at least 146 “dry spills”, when there was no rain.

Ms Slack, from SAS, said this was harmful to the environment and public health. She said the government needed to do more to hold water businesses accountable.

“It is high time the government stepped up and took serious action to curb their destructive and greedy behaviour,” she said.

According to data from the Environment Agency, UK water firms released raw sewage more than 770,000 times during 2020 and 2021.

It has just released data for May to September 2022, which shows sewage was released 5,504 times over more than 15,000 hours.

Anne Leonard, an environmental epidemiologist and microbiologist based at the University of Exeter, said she was becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in sewage.

“We are running out of antibiotics that are effective against the most resistant bacteria, so keeping sewage out of our rivers and beaches is a key public health intervention to reduce preventable infections and reduce our reliance on antibiotics limitation,” she said.

A spokesman for Water UK, an organization representing the UK’s water and wastewater service providers, said water companies agreed there was an urgent need to tackle storm overflows.

A new infrastructure program will deliver £56 billion of improvements if approved by regulators, Water UK said.

“To further accelerate progress, we need the government to put an end to the unregulated connections of housing developers to sewers without first knowing their capacity, and to end the flushing of wet wipes made from materials that obstacles and hills add fat.

“We also need the government to implement existing legislation to increase the use of sustainable drainage systems on new developments as a way to reduce the volume of rainwater entering the sewage system,” said the spokesperson.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was going “further and faster than any other government to protect and improve rivers, lakes and seas and that the government was “clear that water companies cannot make a profit for damage to the environment”.

“Our Superflow Stormflow Reduction Plan introduced strict targets on sewage pollution and will require water bodies to deliver the biggest infrastructure program in their history to tackle storm sewage discharges – a £56 billion capital investment over 25 years ,” said a spokesperson.

“Through increased monitoring and transparency, driven by the government, regulators have launched the largest ever criminal and civil investigations into water companies’ sewage treatment works.

“Regulators will use all options for strong enforcement action and will continue to prioritize action to protect high-priority bathing waters and natural sites.”

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