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Swim England welcome article from Professor Whitty on sewage discharge

The chief medical officer for England has hit out at water companies for not doing enough to prevent raw sewage from being discharged into the country’s rivers.

Professor Chris Whitty is the joint author of an opinion article on the growing health problem of sewage in water.

Alongside Jonson Cox, Ofwat chair and Emma Howard Boyd, Environment Agency chair, Professor Whitty has said the issue is an increasing problem at a time when ‘many people took to swimming in rivers’ during lockdown ‘and have continued since’.

The article has been welcomed by Swim England, which has been campaigning as part of the #EndSewagePollution coalition to improve water quality.

In the article, Professor Whitty, Jonson and Emma wrote: “One of the greatest public health triumphs of the last 200 years was separating human faeces from drinking water.

“People now take this for granted but it was the basis for preventing cholera, typhoid and other bacterial and viral diarrhoeal diseases that killed millions in major epidemic.

“Largely achieved through remarkable feats of engineering over two centuries, only vaccination matches it as a public health intervention for preventing infectious diseases.

“Tap water in the UK is safe. No-one expects river water to be of drinking standard, but where people swim or children play they should not expect significant doses of human coliforms if they ingest water.

“Raw sewage from storm overflows and continuous discharge of waste containing viable organisms from sewage treatment works is an increasing problem.

“This is a serious public health issue for government and regulators and it is clear that the water companies are not doing enough.”

Hugely welcome intervention

Jane Nickerson, Swim England chief executive, said: “This is a hugely welcome intervention from Professor Whitty, one of the most respected public health experts in the country.

“He and his co-authors are absolutely right to say that people swimming in our rivers is something to be celebrated.

“We also share the view that our rivers, seas and waterways ‘should be free from sewage to reduce risk to the public’.

“Sadly that is so far from the current situation, with water companies dumping sewage into our waterways a whopping 372,533 times in 2021.

“That is why we have been campaigning on this important issue, to push for substantial progress on improving water quality across the country.

“We will continue to do so to hold water companies, regulators and the Government to account to deliver on the improvements the public rightly expects.

“An important step as part of this process would be to designate many more stretches of river as bathing waters to increase accountability and drive progress.

“We naturally care about the health of swimmers but even if nobody ever swam in the water, there would still be a compelling moral case to ensure high standards of water quality to benefit the environment and wildlife.”

To read ‘Sewage in water: a growing public health problem’ please click here.