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Professor Chris Whitty: Sewage in water is ‘growing health problem’

Raw sewage from storm overflows and the continuous discharge of waste from sewage treatment works is an “increasing problem”, says the Chief Medical Officer for England.

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Rivers should “be free from sewage”, said Professor Whitty.

Professor Chris Whitty said adults and children who swim in the UK’s rivers should not expect to ingest “coliforms” (bacteria found in human waste). 

He said our rivers, seas and waterways should “be free from sewage” to reduce risk to the public.

His words are relevant to all users of our waterways but particularly swimmers and paddlers.

Professor Whitty said there are two “major” issues to resolve, both of which have solutions.

The first concerns storm overflows. He said these should only be activated in “exceptional circumstances” when the public would be unlikely to be using the rivers. 

Environment Agency data showed that water companies released sewage 370,000 times into our rivers, lakes, estuaries and seas, in 2021.

This was a slight improvement on 2020, when sewage was let go 400,000 times, at 3.1 million hours. 

It’s sad when enjoying our rivers, something humans have been doing naturally for centuries, has now become a serious risk to our health.

– Ben Seal, Head of Access and Environment, British Canoeing

Professor Whitty said: “ reduce the frequency down to genuine storms should be a minimum expectation.”

He added: “Nobody wants a child to ingest human faeces.”

The solutions include “better operational management, innovation and investment” and should be seen as the job of water companies. 

Anglian Water, Severn Trent, South West Water and Northumbrian Water, have agreed to reduce their overflows to an average of no more than 20 discharges a year by 2025.

However, Professor Whitty said action needs to go much further and Ofwat and the Environment Agency will hold companies to account.

The second major issue concerns coliforms from the continuous normal discharge from sewage works.

Professor Whitty said these must be eliminated from sewage works upstream of recreational areas.

At beaches this has been achieved by “ultraviolet treatment”, but less “energy-intensive” treatments, which are being trialled, should be pushed forward with “urgency”.


Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty. (C) Department of Health and Social Care.

The problem, he continued, is not just about money. 

There needs to be “preventive engineering, better sewer management, innovation and commitment”. 

Ofwat has asked all companies to produce an action plan setting out how they will rapidly improve river health, Professor Whitty said. 

Compared to France’s 500 designated bathing areas, there are just two stretches of rivers in England and Wales.

Professor Whitty said he recognised that plastic wet wipes flushed down the toilet makes sewer management more difficult, along with fats poured down the drains.

However, he said preventing human faeces reaching recreational bathing water rests “squarely with the water companies and their directors”.

He added that Ministers want “significant action” to tackle storm sewage discharges and companies should “take the initiative and go faster”. 

Professor Whitty concluded: “Regulators will hold companies to account. It is time for wastewater companies to act. It will be a matter of choice if they do not.”

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Storm overflows should be activated in “exceptional circumstances”, said Professor Whitty.

In response, Ben Seal, Head of Access & Environment at British Canoeing, said: “We know this is an issue that is deeply concerning to our community.

“We are continuing to work with partners to urge the water sector to go much further and much quicker.

“Most paddlers are fairly switched on when it comes to protecting themselves by avoiding ingesting water and washing their hands.

“It’s sad when enjoying our rivers, something humans have been doing naturally for centuries, has now become a serious risk to our health.”

The op-ed was written along with Jonson Cox, Ofwat chair and Emma Howard Boyd, Environment Agency chair, first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. 

You can read the full article on the government’s website.