Boy, 3, suffered vomiting and diarrhoea after 'sewage release' on his local beach

  • Sam Blackledge reports on concerns about raw sewage spills on beaches in the South West

The mother of a three-year-old boy from Cornwall says she felt "angry, disgusted and sick" after he suffered vomiting and diarrhoea after playing on their local beach.

Pauline Jones took young Finley to Widemouth Bay on the north Cornish coast in November last year.

Later that day Finley became ill - and a friend's child, who had also been on the beach, had the same symptoms.

Pauline says she believes the sickness was linked to a sewage spill, but there are a number of reasons why somebody can become ill after swimming in the sea or being at the beach, such as agricultural run-off, animal faeces or simply swallowing too much seawater.

Finley suffered vomiting and diarrhoea a few hours after playing on the beach. Credit: Pauline Jones

Pauline said: "We hadn't been living here that long. Myself and another neighbour, her little boy and my little boy went down to the beach.

"The boys dug in the sand, they got their hands all mucky, and that evening he was really poorly in bed.

"We went to the doctors, they just said he had a bit of sickness and diarrhoea which should pass within a couple of days.

"But the little boy down the road also had the same thing exactly the same time.

"It just made me feel a bit sick to my stomach, thinking I'd let him play around in something that had been maybe contaminated with effluent and God knows what else."

Pauline says the thought that her son was poorly because of raw sewage made her feel sick. Credit: ITV News

Pauline says she wrote to her local MP and contacted South West Water.

"It made me really angry. It does put me off a little bit, which is a bit sad.

"When we were down at the beach, there were people swimming in the sea while the discharge was happening, and I'm 100% sure they had no idea."

A spokesman for South West Water said: “We care about our 860m of coastline, our regions 100% bathing water quality, which we have successfully maintained for three consecutive years and protecting the environment now and in the future.

"We were one of the first water companies to have all our storm overflows monitored meaning we know exactly what is happening, when and where, allowing us to target investment and make changes where it matters most.

"We are serious about tackling storm overflows and change of this scale takes time, ambition, and increased investment – and that is why we are investing £850m in our region over 2 years.

"The increase in the storm overflow spills this year can be accounted for by the amount of named storms and weather warnings in 2023. It’s clear we need to redesign our systems, which we are already doing.

"We will also be the first water company to meet the Government target of less than 10 spills per overflow, per year – a decade ahead of target.”

Kirsty Davies from Surfers Against Sewage says water companies need to improve. Credit: ITV News

Kirsty Davies, from Surfers Against Sewage, said: "The water companies have known about this for years. They've known there is climate change and an increase in extreme weather.

"Water companies now need to invest and address these issues. They are currently planning their five-year business plan. They've got an opportunity now to start progressing and making change."

Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, said: "We've got to get to grips with this because the amount of raw human effluent being pumped into our natural environment is often utterly disgusting. That's why we need stronger action than the Government is taking today."

Labour MP Luke Pollard is calling on the Government to take tougher action against water companies. Credit: ITV News

Environment Agency director of water Helen Wakeham said: "Whilst it is disappointing that water companies have reported an increase in sewage spills in 2023, it is sadly not surprising.

"We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data – it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight.

"No other country has the level of monitoring we do, with 100 per cent of storm overflows in England now fitted with a monitor.

"We are better placed than ever before to hold water companies accountable – thanks to intelligence from our new whistleblower portal, our plans to expand our specialised workforce, new enforcement powers, increased water company inspections and new tools to inform our enforcement work."

Water Minister Robbie Moore said: "I have been clear that sewage pollution in our waters is unacceptable, which is why in just the last few months we announced a consultation to ban water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred, quadrupled company inspections next year, fast-tracked £180m investment to cut spills, launched a whistleblowing portal for water company workers to report breaches, and will soon set out our plans to ban wet wipes containing plastic.

"We demanded that 100 per cent of overflows were monitored by the end of last year as part of our drive to improve transparency.

"Today’s data shows water companies must go further and faster to tackle storm overflows and clean up our precious waterways. We will be ensuring the Environment Agency closely scrutinise these findings and take enforcement action where necessary.”