Sick Of Sewage

Sick Of Sewage

Bit of brown anyone? Sewage discharge, St Agnes, 1st November Photo: SAS

New report shows evidence of illegal ‘dry spills’ into UK rivers and seas by water companies, as public continue to suffer the grim consequences of swimming in sewage

Sewage outflows are only permitted in ‘unusually heavy rainfall’, but analysis from Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) suggests regulations were ignored by water companies.

For the first time Surfers Against Sewage’s annual water quality report analyses the frequency of ‘dry spills’ (discharges of sewage when there has been no rain).
146 dry spills were detected over a 12-month period, with 95 of these at locations where water quality is classified as ‘excellent’.
Over the same period SAS issued a total of 9,216 sewage pollution alerts via its Safer Seas & Rivers Service (SSRS).
Well over a third (39%) of sickness cases reported to SAS correlated to sewage discharge alerts.
New Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) data for the 2022 bathing season – which will reveal the frequency and duration of sewage discharges in England this summer – is expected from the Environment Agency next week

UK water companies could be guilty of illegal activity according to a new report released by campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) today. Analysis of sewage discharge alerts and meteorological data[1] shows that discharges occurred in multiple instances when there was no rain recorded – at least 146 times at a conservative estimate – despite regulations stipulating that outflows should only occur during ‘unusually heavy rainfall’. Southern Water was responsible for four times as many ‘dry spills’ as the next worst offender, South West Water.

Between October 2021 and September 2022, SAS issued 9,216 sewage pollution alerts via its Safer Seas & Rivers Service (SSRS), which covers over 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. A quarter (2,053) of these alerts were during the 2022 bathing season.

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.

“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, make 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 to curb the destructive and selfish behaviour of the water companies responsible for this literal shitstorm.”

As part of its water quality report, SAS has also analysed data from 720 sickness reports submitted via the SSRS. The data revealed that over a third (39%) of sickness cases correlated to sewage discharge alerts, whilst 63% of cases that were reported to a doctor were attributed to poor water quality.

SAS’s findings make a mockery of the categorisation system for designated bathing waters in the UK. Over half (55%) of the sickness reports submitted related to instances of swimming at locations classified as ‘excellent’ under the current testing regime. Similarly, of the 146 ‘dry spills’ recorded, 95 were at locations classified as ‘excellent’.

SAS’s sickness data is proof of the detrimental effect that the sewage scandal is having on our health. The most common illness reported from people who got sick after swimming in rivers or the sea was gastroenteritis, with 2 in 3 people reporting symptoms associated with the condition. Ear, nose and throat infections were common too, with respiratory, skin and urinary tract infections also reported.

Dr Anne Leonard, an environmental epidemiologist and microbiologist based at the University of Exeter, said: “We’ve known for over one hundred 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.

“We are particularly concerned about the presence in sewage of disease-causing bacteria that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics – so called antibiotic resistant bacteria. We are running out of antibiotics that are effective against the most resistant bacteria, so keeping sewage away from our rivers and beaches is a key public health intervention to reduce preventable infections and limit our reliance on antibiotics.”

The sewage scandal is also affecting mental health, with members of the public eschewing spending time in rivers and the sea after experiencing sickness – despite finding activities such as swimming, surfing and paddleboarding beneficial to their mental wellbeing.

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.”

With the release of its annual report, SAS is reiterating six key demands to end sewage discharge into bathing waters by 2030, which are as follows:

• 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.

Despite public outcry at the volume of sewage being released by water companies into our rivers and onto our beaches, the government has continued to drag its heels on bringing water companies into line. Reductions in regulator funding of over 50% over the last decade, combined with the stripping of red tape to allow water companies to self-report on their pollution, has left the UK’s rivers and seascapes in dire straits. Meanwhile, despite nearly every water company recording a loss for the year ending 31 March 2022, the majority still paid out dividends to shareholders totalling £965 million, whilst paying a cumulative total of £16.5 million to their CEOs.

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.

Safer Seas & Rivers Service

Safer Seas & Rivers Service

This week, us Brits will be indulging in two of our greatest pleasures. Bank holidays and trips to the water’s edge.
But did you know that over half of us, the great British public, are scared of swimming outside because we’re unsure if the water is clean or polluted?
Hmm… Some amazing organisation really should create a solution to this issue. Perhaps in the form of a free mobile app 🤔 🤔 🤔

Yes, today, ahead of the Bank Holiday weekend, we have launched our updated Safer Seas & Rivers Service app with a ‘Poo Watch’ stunt on Jubilee Beach, Southend. And we’ve also published new research which shows just how much the #SewageScandal is affecting our water use.

Remind me, what is the Safer Seas & Rivers Service (SSRS)?
Simply put, the SSRS is a vital and free public health information service, providing real-time water pollution alerts straight to a user’s phone. Why? To help beach goers make an informed decision on how, when and where to use the UK’s beautiful beaches and rivers to avoid any potentially harmful pollution coming from sewer overflows and farming run-off.
That sounds great! Does it do anything else?
Funny you should ask… Yes, through the free app you can:
submit evidence of sewage pollution – an essential step in holding big polluters responsible;
submit health reports to us – water companies put our health at risk every time they discharge raw sewage, help us fight back by sharing your story;
email your MP and your water company CEO at the click of a button to demand they #EndSewagePollution.
I really should have this. How do I download it?
It’s simple. Either search for Safer Seas & Rivers Service on your mobile app store or click the button below.

SAS Water Quality Report

SAS Water Quality Report

Surfers Against Sewage activist surfs the Severn Bore wearing a gas mask to raise awareness of sewage pollution, Photo: Ben Birchall.

Surfers Against Sewage’s annual water quality report reveals that sewage discharges into coastal waters have increased by 87.6% over the last 12 months
• 5,517 sewage discharge notifications were issued by water companies over a 12-month period, an increase of 87.6%.
• 3,328 of these discharge notifications were issued throughout the bathing season.
• One in six days have been rendered ‘unswimmable’ due to sewage pollution during the official bathing season alone.
• One in three reports of sickness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area.
• Currently only 14% of UK rivers are deemed to have ‘good’ ecological status.
• Six out of eight rivers tested pose a continuous serious risk to human health.

A new report released today reveals the extent of the sewage pollution crisis in the UK’s seas and rivers. Surfers Against Sewage’s (SAS) annual water quality report has found that water companies are increasing the discharge of harmful amounts of sewage into our seas and rivers, with devastating consequences for the environment.

The report details the number of sewer overflow discharge notifications issued over the 12-month period from 1 October 2020 to 30 September 2021, using data accessed from water companies via SAS’ Safer Seas & Rivers Service (SSRS). Whilst sewer overflows can be an important part of the safe management of sewage systems in the event of exceptionally heavy rainfall, the report notes increasing instances of discharge notifications issued at times many would consider to be normal rainfall events.

Surfers Against Sewage, who have been campaigning to end sewage pollution for over 30 years, have found that a total of 5,517 sewer overflow discharge notifications were issued by water companies over the 12-month period – an 87.6% increase on last year’s figure of 2,941. Of these discharge notifications, 3,328 were issued during the bathing season (15 May – 30 September), up on 2020’s figure of 1,195.
With some water companies only providing data during the bathing season, and with data only available for coastal waters, these numbers are likely a conservative estimate of the levels of pollution entering seas and rivers. Water companies are also currently at the centre of a major investigation by financial and environmental watchdogs the Environment Agency and Ofwat after they admitted they may have illegally released untreated sewage into rivers and waterways.

According to the report, Southern Water was by far the biggest culprit amongst water companies when it came to CSOs. Over the course of the bathing season alone a total of 1,949 sewage discharge notifications were issued by the company at an eyewatering average of 38 notifications per bathing water. In addition, almost 30% of the 286 health reports submitted this year came from Southern Water’s operating area.

Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected. Time and time again, governments have claimed concern over the pollution of rivers and seas, but have so far failed to take concrete action to change the status quo. Loopholes in laws and systematically defunded regulators have left water companies to run amok.

“The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences. Instead, eyewatering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs.

“Why should ordinary people bear the brunt of this greed whilst providers continue to decimate our natural environment? We need water companies to clean up their act and commit to a decade of change to ensure our rivers and coastlines are thriving with people and wildlife again.

The public outrage around the sewage amendments in the Environment Act show just how deeply people want action. The government now states it has the legal tools to hold water companies to account – we will be watching and campaigning to make sure this is the case. The proof will be when sewage emissions are drastically reduced or eliminated, and our rivers and coastline meet the standards that the water industry should have helped deliver many years ago.”

UK rivers are in a particularly poor state. As part of SAS’ data collection, citizen scientists conducted regular water quality sampling at eight locations across the UK where a river flows into the sea at or close to a designated bathing water. The testing found that six out of the eight river sites monitored had elevated E. coli levels, all returning an overall poor water quality result throughout the bathing season. The UK currently has just one designated river bathing water. As a result, rivers are not subject to the same monitoring that is conducted in coastal bathing waters during bathing season – despite being popular spots for bathing and other sports, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. Sewage discharge events also have a detrimental effect on river ecology, and currently only 14% of UK rivers are deemed to have ‘good’ ecological status.

The water quality report identifies clear links between discharge notifications and human health. For the second year, SAS collated health reports through the SSRS to gather evidence of the impact that poor water quality and sewage pollution could be having on people using bathing waters for recreation. Analysis found that one in three reports of sickness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area.

Prof. William Gaze, Professor of Microbiology at The European Centre for Environment and Human Health, said: “Environmental pollution plays an important role in the “silent pandemic” of antimicrobial resistant infections. Sewage contains high levels of antimicrobial resistant bacteria and antimicrobial drugs which are likely to contribute to emergence of new resistance mechanisms in human pathogens. It is essential that we reduce sewage discharges, and improve wastewater treatment, to reduce the risks to human health associated with exposure to natural recreational waters.”

The report throws into question the classification system used by regulators to indicate the quality of designated bathing waters. SAS reported a higher average number of sewage overflow discharges notifications at locations classified as ‘excellent’ (10 warnings) and ‘good’ (16 warnings) than locations classified ‘sufficient’ (5 warnings) and ‘poor’ (4 warnings). This is opposite to the expected trend, suggesting that bathing water classified as ‘excellent’ and ‘good’ may in fact be experiencing significant sewage pollution.

Dr Christian Dunn, Senior Lecturer in Natural Sciences at Bangor University, stated: “Untreated sewage can be a death potion to our rivers and waterways. It is a cocktail of harmful viruses, bacteria and chemicals. Some of these can directly harm aquatic life and others lead to devastating disruptions in the oxygen levels of the water – risking entire ecosystems. Let’s not forget as well, that raw sewage can include anything that goes down the drain; so that can be illicit drugs, pharmaceutical waste and microplastics. Worryingly we don’t yet know the full effects these can have on life in our rivers. Rivers are essential for the health of entire landscapes, our wildlife depends on them, and there’s no surer way to destroy a river than flooding it with sewage.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Water Resources Act, introduced in 1991 to govern water quality, yet pollution from sewage remains a huge issue. SAS’ latest water quality report comes amidst heated debate in and out of Parliament around the role of water companies in polluting our seas and rivers. Just this month, MPs voted to approve an amendment that states that water companies must make a ‘progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from the undertaker’s storm overflows’ – a watered-down version of an amendment tabled by the Duke of Wellington, which would have given rise to a systemic overhaul of sewage management in the UK.

Million Mile Clean

Million Mile Clean

UK’s biggest ever beach clean will reach Million Mile milestone on 3rd October, 2 months ahead of schedule!

On 2-10 October, UK charity, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), are holding a mass-community mobilisation week to push past the millionth mile of their 2021 Million Mile Clean campaign.

Launched in April of this year, the Million Mile Clean is the most ambitious UK beach clean campaign ever and has mobilised more than 100,000 volunteers, nationwide, to each clean 10 miles of blue or green space through 2021.

The environmental charity originally targeted hitting one million miles of beach, street, river and mountain cleaning by December but the appetite of the public to get out into the UK’s blue and green spaces and tackle the plastic pollution crisis has been such that SAS now anticipate breaking through the Millionth Mile in October.

The Millionth Mile Week, which will take place from 2-10 October, will see 400 cleans taking place across the UK, attended by 30,000 volunteers and will launch at The Millionth Mile Clean on Sunday 3rd October, Perranporth Beach, Cornwall.

SAS is issuing a rallying cry to Ocean Activists across the UK to organise a clean or find one near them and get involved by heading to

Initially focussing on reconnecting communities with each other and the environment whilst putting plastic pollution back to the top of the political agenda, the Million Mile Clean campaign has fast become much more. Following the impact of the pandemic, the campaign has also focused in on mental health and physical wellbeing and has seen over 100,000 individuals reconnecting with blue and green spaces nationwide.

SAS is encouraging people to get involved and make a difference in their local community by registering a clean. All Clean Leaders are provided with an equipment pack for free along with all relevant safety guidance.

Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage, commented: “Despite the restrictions and uncertainty still in place throughout 2021, we have been blown away by the response from communities across the UK so far. Through the Million Mile Clean we have empowered an army of Ocean Activists like never before and we are now calling on you one last time to unite for the ocean and environment. We know we will achieve one million miles but this shouldn’t be seen as a limit. The question now is how far can we go? Sign up and get involved today and together we can make a difference.”

Richard Walker, IFCF Trustee and Managing Director of Iceland Foods, said: “I am hugely proud of the amazing efforts by the SAS community to achieve a million miles. Tens of thousands of people are showing just how much they care about protecting our blue and green spaces for future generations. We need to ensure that this is also at the top of every business and policy agenda, so we can drive change together.”

Water Companies Forced To Show Real-Time Discharge Data

Water Companies Forced To Show Real-Time Discharge Data

• New commitments from the water industry to increase transparency around storm overflows
• Real-time data on sewage discharges into bathing waters to be made available all year round
• Environment Secretary to work with Philip Dunne MP on the aims of his Private Members’ Bill to tackle river pollution

A joint industry-government group established last year to tackle river pollution has today (22 January) agreed a new objective to prevent damage from storm overflows.

The Storm Overflows Taskforce – made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK  – has agreed to set a long term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. Following recommendations from the Taskforce, water companies will also increase transparency around when and how storm overflows are used.
Storm overflows were designed to be used during extreme weather to prevent sewers becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rainwater, releasing diluted wastewater into rivers rather than letting it back up into people’s homes. However climate change has led to increased rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades.

Water companies have agreed to make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round, meaning surfers, swimmers and other water users can check the latest information – especially after heavy rainfall.  Water companies will also accelerate work to install monitoring devices to create a complete picture of their activity by 2023.

In addition, the Taskforce has agreed with water companies that they will publish annual monitoring data on their websites about their use of storm overflows so that progress in reducing their use can be tracked. The Environment Agency will compile this data into an annual report that is easily accessible to the public.

The Taskforce update comes as the Government confirms it is also working with Philip Dunne MP on our shared ambitions to tackle sewage pollution in our rivers.

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, introduced by Mr Dunne to Parliament last year, has raised awareness of a number of issues associated with storm overflows. The Government has committed to continuing to work with Mr Dunne on the best way to make progress in reducing the harm caused by sewage spilling into our rivers.

Since 2010, 884 storm overflows have been improved to reduce their environmental impact and frequency of operation, with a further 798 improvements planned for the period 2020 – 2025.

Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, said: 

“I have been shocked to discover the extent of sewage routinely spilled in our rivers. Poor water quality has a very damaging impact on aquatic species which depend on clean rivers, and risks healthy enjoyment of our rivers by the public.

“I am really pleased this Government has recognised that this has got to change. I am delighted the Minister has responded so quickly to Covid restrictions interrupting progress of my Private Members Bill by agreeing to work with me to develop measures to improve water quality across England.”

The Storm Overflows Taskforce was set up in August 2020 to bring together water companies, regulators and environmental NGOs to accelerate progress in this area, building on work already underway to improve our rivers and waterways.

Its work covers a series of short, medium and long-term actions focused on the goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows – a generational endeavour that will involve significant change and take time to achieve.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

“Making sure we have clean rivers is an absolute priority and I have been clear that I want to cut down on the water sector’s reliance on storm overflows.

“The Storm Overflows Taskforce, established last year, is working urgently on options to tackle this issue, which demonstrates a collective commitment for change in this critical area.

“Our ambitious Environment Bill already sets out how we will tackle various sources of water pollution. I look forward to working with Philip Dunne and others on how we can accelerate progress in this area.”

The Environment Bill will place a statutory requirement on water companies to produce drainage and sewerage management plans to help deliver more of the actions needed to address the risks sewerage assets may pose to the environment.

It is the responsibility of water companies to ensure serious water pollution incidents do not occur, and they have committed to a significant programme of improvements to the monitoring and management of storm overflows over the next five years at a cost of around £1.1 billion.

As a result of the work of the Taskforce, water companies have identified opportunities to increase the number of overflows they will improve over the next five years.

Work will continue to consider how the guidance given by the Secretary of State to the regulator Ofwat can best reflect the importance of water quality in water companies’ activities.

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said:

“Publishing easily accessible data is an important step to reversing the overuse of storm overflows, but disclosure is only ever the beginning. People want to see progress.  

“Water quality in England’s 240,631 kilometres of river is everyone’s responsibility but water companies have a pivotal role in helping the whole country make the necessary big changes. We look forward to working with them, as well as government and MPs, to turn today’s ambition into action.”

John Russell, Senior Director at Ofwat said:

“The work of the Storm Overflows Taskforce will play a crucial role in protecting precious parts of our ecosystem.

“We are committed to working with Government, regulators and the water industry to meet this challenge and ensure that we leave our rivers in a healthier condition for current and future generations.”

Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of CCW, said:

“Increasing transparency around the use of storm overflows is a welcome step but consumers will expect it to result in urgent action where pollution is jeopardising the health of our inland waters and the nature and people that enjoy or depend on them.”

“Radical change to a complex sewer system will take time to deliver but water companies should now be looking to prioritise improvements in rivers and streams where the damage caused by the over dependence on storm overflows is already acute.” 

Christine McGourty, Water UK Chief Executive, said:

“Water companies are passionate about protecting and enhancing our nation’s rivers, and over the next five years we will invest £1.1bn in improving storm overflows as part of our £5bn environment programme. Storm Christoph demonstrates how important overflows are in ensuring that sewers don’t flood at times of very heavy rainfall. Today’s announcement will help ensure that we can continue protecting people’s homes and businesses whatever the weather. 

“We look forward to continuing the close collaboration with Government and other partners to help enhance the health of rivers even further, for the benefit of our customers, communities and the environment.”