Half fall ill after surfing or swimming in British water

More than half the people who have gone wild swimming or tried water sports in British seas and rivers have fallen ill, a survey has found.

Ben Webster www.thetimes.co.uk 

The report commissioned by the charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) found that a fear of being exposed to contaminated water deterred 52 per cent of people from entering the water. Awareness of the threat has grown rapidly in the past year.

Of the 22 per cent that have tried wild swimming, surfing or other water sports, 55 per cent have fallen ill.

In the past two years, SAS has received more than 640 reports of illness, including ear and eye infections and diarrhoea, from people who have been in the sea or rivers.

The reports were submitted by the charity’s Safer Seas & Rivers Service, an app that delivers water quality alerts based on information from water companies about sewage discharges and Environment Agency forecasts of agricultural pollution.

Storm overflows operated by water companies resulted in 372,533 sewage spills last year in England and Wales, down from 403,171 in 2020. Water companies are allowed to release sewage in exceptional circumstances, such as after heavy rain, but last year 675 overflows spilt sewage 100 times or more.

More than half (55 per cent) of the 2,000 people surveyed said funding for improvements to sewage infrastructure to reduce pollution should come from water companies’ profits.

Susan Moate, 38, who swims in the River Ouse near her home in Lewes, East Sussex, said she became ill in 2020 with severe ear infections that her doctor attributed to swimming in the river.

“Since then I have avoided putting my head underwater when I swim, but I don’t want to give up altogether,” she said. “It’s such a shame so little is being done to combat sewage pollution.”

Matthew Harle, 29, an aeronautical engineer from Bristol, said he went surfing at Sandymouth Bay, Cornwall, in January and was violently sick that night. He believed the source of the infection was agricultural pollution.

The Environment Agency rates the bay as having “excellent” water quality. However, SAS said there was a loophole in the water regulations.

Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of SAS, said: “The public are fearful about swimming due to the amount of raw sewage being discharged and believe the water industry must cut this crap.”