Unsafe waters (water pollution in the UK)

It is summer and many of us will travel to a local river or beach to cool off in the water. We will take part in summer activities like stand up paddle boarding, surfing, skiing and swimming. When we do this we, and our families, are at risk from water pollution. 

The Environmental Audit Committee released a report in January last year that claimed that ‘Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination’. Only 14% of UK rivers had a good ecological balance. 

“English river quality is the worst in Europe”

Wildlife and Countryside Link

The two biggest contaminants in our rivers are agricultural runoff and untreated sewage. Plastic pollution also affects water ecology. Consumers flush ‘flushable’ consumables like wet wipes down the toilet, unaware that they contain plastic. Fats, oils and greases poured down the sink contribute to water pollution. They cause “revolting ‘fatbergs’” that cost upwards of £100 million a year to clean up.

The Environmental Audit Committee report goes on to say that ‘Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers on a regular basis’. Untreated sewage contains harmful bacteria and viruses. It can cause stomach aches, diarrhoea, vomiting, respiratory and skin infections (BBC). 

water pollution - photo credit surfers against sewage & Mat Arney
water pollution – photo credit surfers against sewage & Mat Arney

Surfers Against Sewage say that there were over 389,000 discharges of untreated sewage into UK rivers last year. They say that 75% of rivers pose a risk to human health and 39% of bathers who report sickness are linked with a local sewage discharge. 

Water companies apologise

In May this year, Surfers Against Sewage reported that Water UK had apologised for their track record on sewage pollution. But the BBC reported that the apology accompanied a plan to increase water costs to cover the £10bn upgrade needed to address the issues. This is despite the fact that they have paid out more than £2bn a year (on average) to shareholders in the three decades since they were privatised. 

The Environmental Audit Committee report admits that ‘Biodiversity has not been priced adequately into economic decision making’. Excess agricultural run-off increases the levels of phosphorus and nitrogen and can affect river wildlife. Atlantic Salmon, last assessed as Vulnerable and declining in population in 2014 (IUCN) is just one species at risk of our polluted rivers. They are found in the ‘cleanest of rivers’ (Wildlife Trust). 

Action on water pollution

House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee suggested three main actions in light of the report:

  1. The Environment Agency should monitor more substances in our rivers and assess the impact on aquatic ecology
  2. The use of single-use plastic in hygiene products should be banned
  3. Every community should have access to safe water to swim in for our mental and physical health

Swim England reported that more than 2.1 million people in the UK swam in Open Waters in 2017/8. Phil Brownlie, their Head of Public Affairs, said “Urgent action is needed to improve the state of all our waters to protect these precious environments and the wildlife which call them home, as well as ensuring swimmers and other users who access these blue spaces for their physical and mental wellbeing are not risking their own health.”

What can you do about water pollution?

Sign the ‘Dirty Money’ petition at Surfers Against Sewage

Find out how to safely swim in open waters at Swim England

Search the Blue Patch directory for plastic free products

Annette Clubley

Annette is a keen wildlife conservationist, mindful of sustainability and our impact on the environment. Outside of work, family is her focus and she loves teaching the next generation to enjoy the outdoors.