Faulty sewage sensors cause a stink

Swimmers should take care even in popular spots...
26 August 2022

Interview with 

Hugo Tagholm, Surfers Against Sewage




There has been a big stink in the media over the amount of untreated sewage being released along the UK coastlines, sometimes without anyone realising. Indeed, one report claims devices installed by water companies to monitor water quality failed to pick up a quarter of sewage dumps last year; in some cases, the equipment failed 90% of the time.

Perhaps as a result, following a bout of heavy rain, a pollution warning has gone out across 40 public beaches and swimming spots recently, and lead to renewed calls for action. Will Tingle spoke with Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive and Co-founder of Surfers Against Sewage, about the potential implications these sewage dumps could have on public health…

Hugo - We're tracking thousands of sewage pollution events every year at beaches and at rivers. We know that last year alone water companies in England discharged over 2.6 million hours of sewage pollution, 370,000 separate events, at some of our best beaches and bathing waters. We tracked almost three and a half thousand sewage events and that's sort of between the red and yellow flags where people like to swim and expect never to come into contact with industrial pollution. So if we are now hearing that there aren't enough sensors and some of the sensors maybe faulty or broken, then perhaps what we are dealing with is just the tip of the iceberg for the problem for our beaches and for our coastline and maybe on a bigger scale for our rivers too. So we are really concerned. The water industry is presiding over a tidal wave of sewage, and it's simply not good enough.

Will - And is the reason behind the lack of this monitoring equipment simply because they aren't there or just that they're faulty?

Hugo - The industry now has an obligation to monitor and report on sewage discharges. Clearly, there's a process of installing and managing these sensors. It's these types of sensors that give us the data for the safer season river service, the real time data that we can give to the public to keep them safe and make sure they have the cleanest swimming experience at the beach. But the reasons behind the water industry not yet being fully up to speed with this are probably numerous. This is about the time it potentially takes to install them and manage them. And the investment it takes, but they have the money, they have the engineers and they have the resources. So we need to see them moving faster because that information is key to making the investments in the right places to end sewage pollution and protect our rivers and protect our coastline.

Will - We don't want any sort of water contamination, particularly in areas that we swim. So what kind of health problems could people be looking at if people are to swim in these waters?

Hugo - People shouldn't ever be exposed to sewage pollution. It could carry all sorts of pathogens that can make people ill, stomach infections, ear, eye, nose, throat infections. And it carries emerging threats like antibiotic resistant bacteria, which we've done studies on with the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health, which show that regular swimmers have three times the level of antibiotic resistant bacteria in their guts than the background population, even if it's diluted it still poses a big threat to human health. Dilution is not a solution. We really need to see the right solutions in place to protect both people and the environment from sewage pollution. Just 14% of our rivers meet good ecological status, our bathing water, sadly, languishes at the bottom of the European bathing water tables. We should be doing much better in aiming to have the best rivers in the world and also the best water quality in the world.

Will - And aside from holding our water and sewage companies accountable, is there anything else that we could be doing to improve the water quality of our UK coastlines and rivers?

Hugo - This is tightly linked to both the climate issue and the rewilding or the restoration of nature issue. We should be restoring nature, and there's a big movement to restore both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. There's CCGrass and oyster beds and kelp forests, on land forests, our rivers and natural habitats. And those land based ecosystems can take the pressure off water systems. They can slow down water, absorb the water in a more natural way and relieve that pressure on the sewer systems. Personally, people can also make sure they behave responsibly with water, you know, not wasting water, not flushing the wrong things down the loo, but this isn't an individual responsibility sort of issue. This is about an industry that is very profitable, can afford to build the infrastructure and invest in nature based solutions and make sure they're creating a system that's fit for the future, fit to face climate change, and fit both to supply water and protect nature at the same time.


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