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Swim England ‘extremely concerned’ over ‘dry spills’ claims in new report

Swim England is ‘extremely concerned’ following an alarming new dossier which claims water companies discharged sewage into rivers and seas multiple times when no rain was recorded.

Surfers Against Sewage’s annual water quality report has revealed 146 ‘dry spills’ were detected out of a total of 9,216 sewage pollution alerts recorded between October 2021 and September 2022.

Sewage outflows are only permitted in ‘unusually heavy rainfall’ but analysis by Surfers Against Sewage claims these regulations were ignored.

The report also states 720 sickness reports were submitted to the Safer Seas and Rivers Service app – with one swimmer saying she was unwell for six days after going for a dip in contaminated water.

Out of the 146 ‘dry spills’, 95 of these occurred at locations where the water quality is classified as ‘excellent’.

The Safer Seas and Rivers Service app covers more than 450 beach and river spots across the UK, and is designed to help the public make informed decisions about where and when they swim, surf or paddle.

Surfers Against Sewage has now reiterated its key demands to end sewage discharge into bathing waters by 2030, which are:

  • An enhanced water-quality testing regime.
  • The establishment of 200 designated inland bathing waters.
  • World-leading water quality legislation with ambitious legally binding targets and well-funded regulators.
  • To end untreated sewage discharge in all bathing waters and to reduce all untreated sewage discharges by 90%.
  • Nature-based solutions to sewage pollution.
  • Investment from water companies and other systemic polluters. We need water companies to invest urgently in their sewage infrastructure and end the use of sewage overflows.

Jane Nickerson, Swim England chief executive, said: “We’re extremely concerned to read Surfers Against Sewage’s latest water quality report.

“Open water swimmers should be able to enjoy the outstanding natural beauty of our rivers and seas without worrying about whether the water they are in has been contaminated by sewage.

“We fully support Surfers Against Sewage’s demands to end sewage discharge.

“Water companies and the Government need to be taking more urgent action to prevent these type of incidents and help reduce these frankly alarming and deeply worrying statistics.”

Illnesses reported by people who got sick after swimming in open water included 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.

Especially alarming

Julia Walker, a social worker based in Shoreham, West Sussex, said she now only swims with her head above the water after falling ill.

She added: “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.”

Amy Slack, Head of Campaigns and Policy at SAS, said the Government needed to take more action to ‘curb the destructive and selfish behaviour’.

She added: “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 ‘dry spills’, which are not permitted under current regulations.

“Surfers Against Sewage has been campaigning on water quality for the last three decades, making it abundantly clear to water companies that their actions are detrimental to both environmental and public health.

“Yet water companies are still choosing to pour sewage into the ocean and rivers across the country, making us quite literally sick of sewage.

“The Government is complicit in the sewage scandal, failing to enforce and strengthen regulations to protect the health of the UK’s waterways – and the health of its citizens.

“Politicians are simply kicking the can down the road, legitimising sewage pollution for the next 27 years through the sewage action plan published this summer.

“It’s high time the Government stepped up and took real action.”