How to Check Sewage Levels Before a Beach Trip

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Video posted this week showing what appears to be sewage pouring into the sea off the Sussex coast, turning it cloudy and dull, has raised alarm bells for many across the country. Storms and heavy rain have caused sewage to discharge into the waters of Cornwall, Devon, Essex, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland and Cumbria as well as Sussex, making it unsafe for swimming – according to the environmental campaign group Surfers Against Sewage.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “Thunderstorms and heavy rain over the past 48 hours increase the likelihood of storm overflows from the sewer system into seas and rivers.

“We recommend bathers heed local warnings before heading into the sea.

“If any member of the public suspects pollution, we will ask them to report it to our pollution hotline on 0800 807060.”

Councilor Matthew Bird, cabinet member for sustainability at Lewes District Council, described the sewage discharge as a “new low” and condemned Southern Water.

Councilor Bird said: ‘To see these sewage discharges into our seas, particularly at a time when many swimmers are bathing, is truly shocking and disheartening.’

“Discharges are only supposed to happen after storms and only because our water infrastructure is not fit for purpose.”

“Like hundreds of other neighborhood residents, I swim regularly at Seaford and it’s just plain wrong that we have to gamble with our health due to a lack of investment from Southern Water.”

“Even by the woefully poor standards for which Southern Water is infamous, this is a new low.”

Despite rules that private water companies should only discharge sewage in exceptional circumstances, official figures show stormwater discharges rose by more than a third between 2019 and 2020, to 403,171 incidents.

But government ministers refuse to say whether they have met with water companies to resolve the problem, after being questioned in parliament. Conservative Water Minister Steve Double instead referred MPs to another answer he had previously given in which he said the government “has repeatedly made it clear to the water industry that the current use of sewage discharge was unacceptable” – but gave no meeting listings or indication that anyone had looked into the issue.

“It absolutely stinks of ministers hiding from their failure to stop sewage scandals,” said Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Tim Farron.

“When will the government come clean about its inaction on water companies dumping sewage into our precious lakes, rivers and beaches?”

What is a sewage overflow?

Overflows dump untreated sewage into seas and rivers to prevent sewers from overflowing, often after rainstorms. The Environment Agency reported that raw sewage was dumped into rivers and coasts around 375,000 times last year.

The government has said it aims to reduce discharges into bathing waters by 70% by 2035 and eliminate 160,000 incidents of sewage overflows by 2040.

What are the best and worst places to swim?

Ramsgate Sands in Kent and Robin’s Hood Bay in the North York Moors National Park have no water quality alerts in place and are among the best places to swim.

Swimmers are being warned against swimming in places like Sandgate in Kent, where storm water has been released from a sewer overflow in the past 48 hours, and Porthluney, Cornwall, due to the likelihood a reduction in water quality.

You can check your local water quality now at your local river or beach with Surfers Against Sewage Tool.

What are the health hazards of wastewater?

Coming into contact with sewage can be a huge risk. Human sewage contains bacteria and viruses (pathogens) that have previously grown inside another person.

Wastewater can also contain pathogens of animal origin (cattle drainage) and these have the potential to harm us. Contact with sewage can cause stomach upset, gastroenteritis, skin infections, ear infections, eyes, sore throats, lung infections, hepatitis and E.Coli.

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