What we know about Devon water contamination - cryptosporidium symptoms, advice and latest news

Watch the latest report from ITV News West Country as the drinking water scandal continues in South Devon.

An outbreak of a diarrhoea and vomiting illness in south Devon has seen thousands of people told to boil their tap water before using it until further notice.

Dozens of people in Brixham have been taken ill and a school has been closed due to the issue, which could have been caused by cow poo.

A boil water notice was issued on Wednesday 15 May and initially covered properties in Alston and Hillhead. It now no longer covers Alston.

South West Water says the problem may have been caused by a broken valve on private property.

It said this has now been repaired. The water tank at Hillhead Reservoir was cleaned on Saturday 18 May before the water was tested again.

The UK Health Security Agency has so far confirmed 77 cases of the parasite - but more than 100 other people have reported similar symptoms.

Two hospitalised amid outbreak

Two people have been taken to hospital following the outbreak, the Environment Secretary Steve Barclay confirmed.

In response to an urgent question on the contamination, Mr Barclay told the Commons the situation has caused “considerable concern and disruption to the local community”.

He added: “Today, UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) have identified at least 46 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium, but given symptoms may take up to 10 days to emerge, obviously that may continue to rise. Two people have been hospitalised.”

Compensation increased to £215 for households still affected

South West Water has announced that households in the Hillhead, upper Brixham and Kingswear areas, which are still covered by the boil water notice, will received £215 compensation.

In a statement on Sunday 19 May, David Harris, the company's drought and resilience director said this was "almost half the amount of the annual average water bill".

South West Water plans to begin flush out the wider Hillhead network, following the cleaning of the reservoir on Saturday 18 May.

Dedicated helpline for businesses

A helpline has been set up for affected businesses and traders at 03332 343 293.

Warning over scam calls

South West Water has warned customers to be aware of scam calls targeting those affected by contaminated water.

In a post on X, South West Water wrote: "We have been made aware of scam calls to customers, claiming to be from South West Water, in relation to your direct debit details and a compensation claim.

"It is important to reiterate that we do not need to contact you and you do not need to do anything."

Boil notice no longer covering Alston

South West Water has reduced the number of properties covered by the boil water notice as of 3.30pm on Saturday 17 May.

In a statement the company said "water quality monitoring results confirm no cryptosporidium in [the] Alston supply area".

According to South West Water, it is now safe for around 14,500 households in the Alston supply area to use their tap water as normal.

The company is still advising around 2,500 properties in Hillhead, upper parts of Brixham and Kingswear to continue to boil their drinking water before consuming it.

'Damaged valve' found

South West Water said on Saturday 18 May that a "damaged valve" had been identified as the "possible cause" of the contamination.

The valve has been isolated from the network and repaired, the company said.

In a statement, it added that the water tank at Hillhead Reservoir had been "drained overnight" and would be "cleaned thoroughly" on Saturday 18 May before being refilled.

'A crisis of confidence in South West Water' - the political fallout

South West Water has faced severe criticism from Devon MPs as part of an urgent question about the situation in the House of Commons, organised by Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall.

Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter said the "belated and pitiful offer of compensation by South West Water is somehow symbolic of the complete disconnect of the very wealthy people who run our water industries seem to be suffering from".

He was joined in criticising SWW by fellow Labour MP Luke Pollard, who represent Plymouth Sutton and Devonport.

"There is a crisis of confidence in South West Water," Mr Pollard said.

"Their response has been frankly hopeless, they've had poor communications, poor initial compensation - in that every pound seems to have to be dragged out of them - and they have a record of failure on sewage."

He added that the region's "brilliant" tourism industry had been "battered yet again because of South West Water".

Simon Jupp, the Conservative MP for East Devon, agreed and called for compensation for those who had fallen ill, as well as for hospitality and tourism businesses across the county who "have seen their takings slashed and bookings cancelled."

Mr Jupp added that SWW's response "left a lot to be desired".

Meanwhile Anne Marie Morris, Conservative MP for Newton Abbot called the situation "devastating" and warned it has become an issue of trust.

"Trust, not just in SWW as an organisation - that has a long way to go before we can have real trust in them. But trust in the quality of our water and of our regulators to hold organisations like SWW to account," she said.

South West Water increases dividend payout to shareholders despite Brixham issue

It has been announced that SWW shareholders will receive a larger end of year payout than in 2023, despite the issue of drinking water in Brixham and a record fine for pollution.

SWW has also revealed their underlying operating profits increased by 8.6% to £166.3 million in the year to 31 March 2024.

It means shareholders will receive 3.8% more in their dividend payout than last year.

Group chief executive Susan Davy said: “Whilst the results we are announcing today are based on our performance for the last financial year, we are 100% focused on returning a safe water supply to the people and businesses in and around Brixham.

South West Water vans surround Hillhead Reservoir for cleaning on Saturday 18 May.

What we know so far about Devon water contamination

  • Part of south Devon is affected by a waterborne parasite known as cryptosporidium

  • Symptoms of cryptosporidium infections include diarrhoea, stomach pain, vomiting and a fever

  • So far 46 cases have been confirmed but 100 more people have reported symptoms

  • South West Water has been investigating at the Hillhead Reservoir, which supplies around 40,000 people

  • MP Anthony Mangnall said the source has been located - but the boil notice will remain in place for a further five or six days

  • The water company says cattle manure may have contaminated its supply

  • Around 16,000 households and businesses were told to boil tap water before drinking it, brushing their teeth or preparing food

  • South West Water's boss has apologised and confirmed those affected will receive £115 in compensation

  • Eden Park Primary and Nursery School in Brixham had to close on Thursday 16 May because of a lack of drinking water. It has reopened on Friday 17 May.

Around 40,000 people are affected by the boil warning which covered the entirety of the area in green above. Credit: South West Water

Advice to residents in cryptosporidium contamination zone

  • Do not drink tap water without boiling it first and allowing it to cool

  • Do not clean teeth with tap water without boiling it first

  • If using water to prepare food, boil it first and then allow it to cool

  • Water is safe for washing, bathing and flushing the toilet as normal

Bottled water collection points

Bottled water is being given out to residents in Broad Sands Car Park. Credit: ITV News

South West Water has set up two bottled water collection points for anyone affected by the issues:

  • Freshwater Quarry car park, TQ5 8BA

  • Broadsands car park, TQ4 6HX

  • Churston boot sale site, TQ4 7BQ

Vulnerable customers can also get in touch about getting bottled water delivered to them. 

What are the symptoms of cryptosporidium infection?

Cryptosporidium is a parasite found in lakes, streams and rivers, untreated drinking water and sometimes in swimming pools. The main symptoms of cryptosporidium infection are:

  • Watery diarrhoea

  • Vomiting

  • Stomach pains

  • A fever

Symptoms may not begin for 10 days after infection. Usually, symptoms of cryptosporidium infection will only last a couple of days but can continue for up to three or four weeks. The parasite can affect people with weak immune systems for much longer.

'Everyone in our street has someone poorly in their house'

People living in Higher Brixham told ITV News they are frustrated after being told on Tuesday 14 May that their water was fine to drink.

"I'm disgusted really," one resident said. "Everyone in our street has someone poorly in their household."

Ripley Couzens said the whole situation is "ridiculous" but that "the community is coming together" as a result of the problems.

Aron Davis has a young son who is diabetic, which means he is very reliant on water. He said they were waiting overnight for a delivery of bottled water.

Mr Davis said: "I think it’s diabolical, absolutely diabolical.

"We had a system where we boiled the water as we were advised. We followed the instructions for it to cool down, left it, tasted it, got sick from the taste of it."

Ashley Hamilton owns The Curious Kitchen. He said it's "been a bit of a shock" and they're now empty.

He said they are changing their cleaning processes, and "being extra extra cautious".

Mr Hamilton said: "We're a tourist town, coming into the busiest time of the year - so it's worrying."

Mary Alwood is from Brixham Fruit Supplies. They're stacking up hundreds of bottles of water outside the shop for people to take for free, and noting down addresses they can deliver to.

She said one of her elderly deaf neighbours was sat out all day waiting for a water delivery that never came.

'She was waiting all day for her water to be delivered'

Ms Alwood said: "It's been manic. We want to help as many people as we can.

"We're inundated with messages, there's so many elderly vulnerable people that have no water."

What has South West Water said?

South West Water says it is working closely with the UK Health Security Agency and public health partners to "urgently investigate" how cryptosporidium is getting into its network so it can be fixed.

On Thursday 16 May, the Chief Executive, Susan Davy, penned an open letter apologising to customers.

In the letter she said: "I understand the significant impact the boil water notice has had on daily life. In recognition of this burden, our compensation payment will be increased to £115.

"This payment will be made automatically, where we have direct debit details, or applied as a credit to your next water bill, where we do not. You do not need to take any action.

"To those in the affected area and our customers across the South West, I am truly sorry for the disruption and wider anxiety this has caused.

"While incidents like these are thankfully very rare, our customers expect a safe, clean, and reliable source of drinking water. I know on this occasion we have fallen significantly short of what you expect of us.

"We will be providing updates, including on our website homepage and ‘In Your Area’ section, with additional information on Facebook. Our team is also available to answer your questions.

"All of us at South West Water live and work in the region, just like you. It is our home and a place we love. I am sorry this has happened.

"I promise you that we will not stop working until the situation has been resolved and drinking water returns to the quality level you expect."

Sarah Bird, consultant in health protection at UKHSA South West said: “We advise people in the affected areas to follow the advice from South West Water and boil their drinking water and allow to cool before use.

“Anyone with a diarrhoeal illness should drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and if they have severe symptoms like bloody diarrhoea, they should contact NHS 111 or their GP surgery.

“Symptoms include: watery diarrhoea, stomach pains, dehydration, weight loss and fever, which can last for 2-3 weeks. Anyone can get cryptosporidiosis, but it is most common in young children aged between 1 and 5 years and most healthy people will recover fully.

“For most people, cryptosporidium symptoms can be managed at home without needing medical advice.

“Those affected should stay off school and work for 48hrs since the last episode of illness and away from swimming pools for 14 days after the last episode of illness.”

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