If you were to pick up a postcard showing a typical British August bank holiday scene it would probably feature a beach crowded with candy-striped windbreakers, an ice-cream van and dozens of people splashing in the sea. What it wouldn’t depict is raw sewage spewing forth from a giant pipe into the water. It might not show murky clouds of waste mingling with clear blue ocean. There would be no tourists being sick after paddleboarding. That, though, is the alarming prospect facing holiday-makers this long weekend, with areas of the coastline designated as having “bathing water status” now polluted by sewage in the scandal of the summer (one of them, anyway).
The East Sussex towns of Bexhill and Seaford saw four sewage discharges last week, one lasting more than five hours. Meanwhile, 40 beach warnings were issued in a 48-hour period, many in Kent, while the Environment Agency warned swimmers to avoid 17 sites across South-West England.
Southern Water — which last year was fined a record £90 million for admitting 6,971 illegal spills across Kent, West Sussex and Hampshire between 2010 and 2015 — was forced to apologise after beaches were closed. But the problem is not confined to the South. There have been 2,287 discharges of raw or partially treated sewage across the UK this summer, according to the charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).
This week alone has seen warnings at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, beaches in Cumbria, Devon, Lincolnshire and Morecambe, as well as the rivers Tweed and Dee. The pipes from which sewage is being expelled are called CSOs (combined sewer overflow systems) and are designed to stop waste from coming back up into our homes during heavy rainfall. Instead, under pressure, they expel a mixture of rainwater and untreated waste into our rivers and seas. A 2012 European Court of Justice ruling said this should occur only in “exceptional” circumstances.
In reality, some overflows are releasing sewage up to 200 times a year each. According to Environment Agency figures, raw sewage was pumped into our waterways around 375,000 times in 2021. Reasons include a lack of investment in infrastructure, population growth, heavy rainfall and run-off from paved surfaces. What’s more, new data analysis has claimed that the devices intended to monitor sewage spills for water companies have either not been installed or fail 90 per cent of the time. A quarter of last year’s discharges may have gone unmonitored. Urban areas including London haven’t escaped. According to the Environment Agency: “When spills from storm overflows occur, millions of tonnes of diluted sewage can enter the river [Thames], causing a drop in dissolved oxygen levels, and impacting fish and other wildlife.” Just this week, following the rain, two “oxygenation boats” were spotted on the capital’s waterway.
“This has been going on for years, but it’s come to a head this summer because more people are swimming, surfing and paddleboarding,” says Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS. “During the pandemic, people realised how important our outdoor spaces are for mental and physical wellbeing. But they’ve also been shocked to find out how much sewage is going into them. Just 14 per cent of our rivers meet good ecological status, and our bathing waters languish at the bottom of European quality tables.”
In June, Professor Sir Chris Whitty called this a “serious public health concern” and stories of people becoming ill —some even needing hospitalisation — and of pet dogs needing to be put down, are becoming frequent. “It’s not just stomach upsets and sore throats we’re worried about, but much more serious threats,” says Tagholm. “Our study with the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health showed that surfers and regular swimmers had three times the levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria in their systems to normal. That’s a big threat to modern medicine.”
Shannon Kyle, 45, became unwell after swimming at Hove, East Sussex. “I spotted a few brown scum patches on the shoreline but there were no signs alerting me to anything wrong and other people were in the sea,” she recalls. “I only swam for 20 minutes but that evening I began to feel nauseous, dizzy and my stomach was upset. The next day, I felt horrible — like I’d been poisoned — and assumed it was something I’d eaten. A few days later I met a friend who’d been swimming that same day and had been similarly unwell. She told me that a sign had been placed further down the beach warning of sewage. It’s really put me off. How long before people fall seriously ill or worse?”
Dr Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, calls the sewage discharges “environmental vandalism.” She was impacted personally last summer. “I was surfing at Croyde in Devon and got caught in a sewage slick,” she says. “I had no idea what it was at first but then it started to smell. It was brown and filthy. It makes you feel so uncomfortable that you can be enjoying yourself in nature and then suddenly be surrounded by sewage. I had a cold afterwards, and I’ve heard from friends who have had similar experiences and been unwell.”
The dumps are also, she adds, damaging small businesses. “My friends run a paddleboarding company and they’ve had cancellations because people are worried about going into the sea due to pollution,” she says. “Businesses are losing money.”
Environmentalist Julia Hailes, author of The Green Consumer Guide, recalls the Eighties when the UK was known as “the dirty man of Europe” for its polluted waters and says we are “going backwards”. Her son, and two friends, became “violently sick” after swimming in the River Avon near Bristol last summer, while a group of fellow students contracted E. coli after paddleboarding on the same stretch. An Environment Agency officer confirmed to her, over the phone, that there is a CSO at that spot. “I was shocked,” she says. “It should be taken as read that we can swim in our rivers. If it was a very rare event, I think we could probably live with it. But it’s common and not just happening in emergencies.”
The rise in weather extremes is only making things worse. “With climate change, you’re going to see more intense weather, and part of that could be heavier rain,” says Dr Napper. “That is going to create more pressure and, unfortunately, potentially release more raw sewage into the environment.
Hailes adds: “The rivers are very low because of the dry weather. It means that when there’s a sewage outfall the impact is greater. It’s taking oxygen out of the water, and killing off fish.”
She calls the Government target to reduce sewage spills by 40 per cent by 2040 “pathetic”. “It’s kicking it into the long grass. The trouble is that we get through August, and then it all goes away again and the Government thinks they’re all right for another year.”
The blame, experts agree, must be shared. “It’s the water companies for letting it happen. The Government for not enforcing laws. Funding to the Environment Agency has been substantially cut,” says Dr Napper. “It’s time to put our heads together so that it can be tackled — through investment, legislation, accountability, transparency.”
The majority of water companies claim to be taking this seriously, with Southern Water saying it is “spending £2 billion between 2020 and 2025 on pollution-preventing infrastructures and equipment.”
Tagholm is less convinced. “We’ve had a lot of the talk from these very profitable companies — now they need to put their money where their mouth is,” he says. “The Government is due to publish its Storm Overflow Action Plan on September 1 and we need it to be very tough on the industry and hold it to account. It should have its profits capped, and its executive bonuses capped or removed until they’ve sorted this issue.”
For a map tracking current UK water quality visit sas.org.uk/map