Minimizing sewage in UK waters is a ‘public health priority’ – Chris Whitty

Minimizing human faecal organisms in freshwater is both a public health and environmental priority, Sir Chris Whitty has warned.

Britain’s Chief Medical Officer has backed a new report released by the National Engineering Policy Center which outlines engineering solutions for Britain’s crumbling water system, with a focus on protecting people’s health.

The team of researchers, working with wastewater experts, campaigners and policymakers, said the UK’s wastewater infrastructure needs to be improved to reduce exposure to human faecal pathogens in effluent – ​​treated water that returns to rivers, seas and lakes.

People are increasingly using open coastal and inland waters recreationally, leading to greater public exposure to pollutants, the report said.

Ahead of the publication on Tuesday, Sir Chris told reporters that “the human health aspect is one of the things that needs to be taken seriously when we measure the quality of water”.

“Minimizing human waste is both a public health and environmental priority,” he added.

It comes after a new row over water quality broke out last week following confirmed cases of the water-borne disease cryptosporidium in Devon and reports that millions of liters of raw sewage were being pumped into Windermere.

Professor David Butler, chair of the National Engineering Policy Center’s wastewater working group, told reporters: “What we’re saying we would like to see now and in the future is that public health becomes almost one of the pillars… along with affordability – yes – and in addition to the environment – ​​yes – when making these major investment decisions.”

Sir Chris warned that sewage leaks during wet spells are “half the problem, not the whole problem” because some human faecal organisms also remain in treated water when it is released back into the environment.

A photo of a general view of Brixham harbour, Devon
It comes after a new row over water quality broke out last week following confirmed cases of the water-borne disease cryptosporidium in Devon (Piers Mucklejohn/PA).

“The lower the water, the less they are diluted,” he added.

“So if you have a very low river because it has been dry recently, that is the ideal situation for children to paddle and for people to swim.

“But that is the time… when a much higher proportion of fecal organisms will come from a sewage treatment plant than from overflows.”

The report outlined fifteen short- and longer-term recommendations to reduce the amount of human waste entering the environment, as well as people’s exposure to it.

Professor Barbara Evans from the University of Leeds said: “It would be a really good time to get everyone around a metaphorical table to decide what we are willing to invest in and why we want to invest in it.”

Recommended near-term actions include improving the maintenance of existing water infrastructure, developing and deploying more microbial and water quality monitoring, and revising bathing water standards based on the best evidence.

The engineers also suggested that a ban on solid materials that clog water systems, such as wet wipes, could free up money used to clear blockages for other solutions.

Ms Evans said: “As an engineer this would mean we would have much more confidence that the system would work properly. We can solve this problem more easily if there are no wet wipes in the sewer.”

The engineers also suggested encouraging the public to remove impermeable surfaces in urban areas, such as patios or paved gardens.

Mr Butler said this would reduce the amount of water entering the wastewater system, but was “also a great opportunity to green our urban areas”.

“We think this is one of our win-win-win solutions that we love in tech,” he said.

The researchers admitted that there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate a direct, causal link between specific wastewater discharges and specific health incidents, but emphasized the known health risks of exposure to high concentrations of fecal organisms.

“We need more research to improve our understanding of what is going on in relation to this faecal pollution,” Ms Evans said.

Commenting on the report, Charles Watson, chairman of River Action, said: “We particularly welcome the call for the Government to accelerate the rollout of continuous water quality monitoring for faecal microbiological organisms and undertake a fundamental review of bathing water regulations.

“Currently, apart from the minuscule number of designated river bathing sites, nothing is being done to provide river users with even the most basic information about the dangers they face.

“It is imperative that our elected politicians view this report as an important wake-up call, given past failures to protect the public from the rising tide of sewage pollution.”

A Department for the Environment spokesperson said: “As well as the Environment Agency issuing more than £150 million in fines and quadrupling inspections to date, we are already undertaking the largest £60 billion infrastructure program in water company history over a period of 25 years, which will drastically reduce leaks.

“Later this year we will launch a consultation on reforming our bathing water regulations, including work to improve bathing water quality and improve monitoring.”

A spokesperson for Water UK said: “Water companies have a plan that proposes to double current levels of spending between now and 2030.

“Public health is an important part of the next phase of the programme, with bathing areas being given a high priority for investment.”