River Thames Rubbish

UK rivers being polluted by ‘cocktail’ of sewage, putting public health at risk

Image credit: Andrew Norris/Dreamstime

A government committee has warned that a vile ‘cocktail’ of sewage, slurry and plastic polluting UK rivers is putting public health and nature at risk.

In a new report, the Environmental Audit Committee said only 14 per cent of English rivers meet good ecological status because of chronic under-investment.

It also uncovered “multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality”, with committee chairman Philip Dunne stressing that the government, regulators, and the water industry have allowed a “Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure”.

High levels of toxins such as phosphorus and nitrogen, from sewage and animal waste, are “choking rivers” and “suffocating fish and plants”.

Members of the committee, including Dunne, have now called for more enforcement against polluters and a public awareness campaign.

“Monitoring regimes need to be reviewed, enforcement needs to be ramped up and public awareness needs boosting on what can and cannot be flushed down the toilet,” said Dunne. “So many emerging pollutants are being missed by inadequate monitoring, and court actions against polluters have fallen dramatically.”

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said the government welcomes the report and was going “further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of rivers and seas”.

Under a European court ruling, firms can release rainwater and untreated sewage into our waterways in “exceptional” circumstances.

But sewage pollution was pumped into rivers and seas for over 3.1 million hours in 2020 alone, in what campaigners call “routine releases”.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “The EA has launched an investigation into possible unauthorised spills at thousands of sewage treatment works, secured fines of over £137m since 2015 for pollution incidents and placed new requirements on water companies to increase their monitoring and reporting so that everyone can see what is happening.

“Everyone should understand the scale of the challenges and the investment needed to put things right. We welcome the EAC’s recommendations and will respond in due course,” the spokesperson concluded.

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