Reducing sewage into rivers and seas is a public health priority, says Chris Whitty

Public health must be at the heart of future investment in a new wastewater system to protect people from water-borne diseases, England’s chief medical officer Prof. Chris Whitty has said.

Reducing the risk people face of coming into contact with human faecal pathogens in untreated and treated sewage discharged into rivers and coastal waters should be a priority, according to a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Whitty, who commissioned the report, said the construction of a wastewater system in the 19th century had ended cholera outbreaks and remained one of the great triumphs of public health.

There needs to be a similar focus today on the need to protect public health when managing wastewater systems, in addition to protecting the environment and ensuring affordability, he said.

“Public waterways are a wonderful resource enjoyed by many children and adults and can have a significant positive impact on our health. Minimizing human fecal organisms in freshwater is both a public health and environmental priority,” Whitty said.

“While there will always be challenges with the efficient management of sewers and wastewater treatment plants, this report provides clear technical options for how this can realistically be achieved.”

He was speaking as South West Water came under criticism over an outbreak of diarrhea in Brixham, South Devon and surrounding areas, caused by cryptosporidiosis, a water-borne disease caused by a microscopic parasite in water systems. More than 14,000 households were told to boil their tap water after a faulty valve allowed the parasite to enter the water system.

The report was published as sewage warnings were issued for beaches in England and Wales during the first weekend of the official bathing season.

It is the first time that a comprehensive analysis has been carried out to investigate and reduce public health risks associated with the use of rivers and seas. It highlighted the lack of investment by water utilities in the maintenance of assets within the sewerage system.

The report called on the government to accelerate the rollout of continuous water quality monitoring for fecal microbiological organisms, as well as the review of bathing water regulations.

“The deterioration of wastewater supplies, increasing urbanization and forecasts of more frequent and intense rainfall due to climate change will mean increasing pressure is placed on our aging wastewater system,” the report said.

Although much attention has been paid to untreated sewage discharges from storm overflows, treated sewage is continuously discharged into rivers and seas and still contains large numbers of fecal organisms even after treatment. “We know that public health risks increase from exposure to high concentrations of fecal organisms,” the report said. There is also significant concern about the development of antimicrobial resistance, especially in human fecal pathogens.

The report calls for short- and long-term action to reduce the risk of ill health from contact with wastewater, including untreated sewage released through storm overflows and wastewater discharged into rivers and seas after treatment by water companies.

It also calls for a review of bathing water regulations to ensure that the necessary microbiological water quality testing is carried out to ensure protection is commensurate with the risk to public health.

The government last week announced 27 new bathing areas in England, where water will be tested from May to September. Giving waterways swimming status means the Environment Agency will have to test them for pollution during the summer months, putting pressure on water companies to stop dumping sewage into them. However, swimming status does not guarantee that the water is safe for swimming. Last year, tests by the Environment Agency found that England’s three river swimming areas were all at a “poor” status due to pollution.

The report says incentives should be offered for the removal of paved surfaces, such as patios or paved gardens, and the use of sustainable drainage systems and other urban greening initiatives. These measures reduce the amount of runoff from towns and cities, which reduces pressure on treatment plants and can reduce the amount of sewage discharged into waterways.

It also calls for the creation of a wastewater champion to improve infrastructure in England.

Barbara Evans, professor of public health engineering at the University of Leeds, said: “Investments in sanitation require national vision and leadership; 150 years ago, Britain committed to eliminating cholera and made the necessary massive investments in our wastewater system; We have benefited from that vision all our lives, and we are probably not aware of it enough.

“That investment is reaching the end of its life, and we owe it to our children and grandchildren to make a new commitment and create a vision of a new wastewater system fit for the future.”

Charles Watson, chairman and founder of River Action, said: “The lack of meaningful government response – as record volumes of raw sewage are dumped into rivers, river users across the country are becoming seriously ill and entire cities are being forced to boil their drinking water. water – has been very frustrating. The publication of this report is therefore a very welcome development and provides a hugely authoritative new voice in calling for the actions so urgently needed to tackle the country’s abhorrent sewage crisis.”