Last year, water companies dumped raw sewage into England’s rivers and seas 400,000 times. In tonight’s episode, reporter Joe Crawley investigates what’s going on below the surface and also asks what we can do to help.At the University of Manchester, a team of researchers carried out tests across ten rivers in Greater Manchester and found the river channel beds to be heavily contaminated in microplastics and the link they had with raw sewage.
In response, a United Utilities spokesperson said:
“Wastewater systems are not designed to treat plastics or microplastics, and we work hard with customers and regulators to minimise plastic being disposed of via sewers. Whilst we recognise wastewater is a pathway for microplastics, Professor Woodward’s research ignored other important sources of microplastics in the immediate study area such as the presence of plastics recycling plants. Only through collaboration and cooperation can this issue be tackled successfully as a society. We have jointly commissioned an independent two-year study to give a much broader understanding of the sources, pathways, consequences and controls of microplastics.”
It costs around £100 million a year to sort out blocked sewers and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are often used to help. It can result in more untreated, and sometimes illegal, sewage being dumped in our waters.
Last year 40% of those pollution incidents were caused by blockages from things we flush down our toilets and drains; Joe meets with Natalie Fée from City to Sea to find out what effects our flushing habits are having on our waterways.
‘The problem is when we're flushing all these plastic products down there, along with fats, oils and greases from our drains, it's causing these giant fatbergs. The more blocked our sewers are, the more frequent we're going to see those sewage spills.’ - Natalie Fée: City to Sea
Natalie advises trying to avoid flushing anything down the toilet that isn’t the three P’s: pee, paper and poo.
In Oxfordshire, Joe meets with Ashley Smith from campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution. Data they have collected has been recognised by the Government; they found at least 700 examples of illegal dumping of sewage that the Environment Agency wasn’t aware of.
Our investigation has shown that it looks like the Environment Agency are missing about ninety five percent of illegal pollution incidents...it's nowhere near an effective regulation and you can see that. - Ashley Smith: Windrush Against Sewage Pollution
Joe also meets with Claire Robertson from Thames21 and some concerned local wild swimmers who formed a campaign group after realising how frequently sewage was being discharged. Five thousand members of the community have signed a petition calling for a ‘designated bathing water area’ in Port Meadow, Oxford. This would mean the water would be tested regularly with results displaying the water quality from Excellent to Poor. A decision about the bathing status will be made early next year.
In the Cotswolds, Debbie Campbell is a mum of two who became interested in wild swimming over lockdown whilst struggling to cope with the pressures of homeschooling. Even though it is notoriously difficult to prove when someone has become sick from wild swimming without doing laboratory tests, doctors do agree that it's very possible after pollution events.
What’s in our Water? Tonight with reporter Joe Crowley is on ITV Thursday 28th October at 7:30pm.
Rivers Trust - Map showing sewerage network discharge areas in England & Wales
Surfers Against Sewage - Interactive map tracking real time spills
Beachbuoy - Southern Water’s online storm release notification system
P&G - Environmental Commitment