Tackling wastewater leaks should be a ‘public health priority’ for the UK, the chief medical officer said

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Reducing wastewater pollution in UK waters must be a “public health priority”, England’s chief medical officer has said.

Supporting a report produced by the Royal Academy of Engineering on how wastewater spills can be minimized, Sir Chris Whitty said that “reducing human faecal organisms in fresh water is a public health priority as well as environment”.

“The human health aspect is one of the things that needs to be seriously considered when we measure water quality,” he added.

His comments come days after thousands of households in Devon were forced to boil their drinking water because of parasites in the water and after a report that millions of liters of raw sewage had been pumped into Windermere, the Great Lake England, one day earlier this year.

Water companies are facing a growing backlash over wastewater pollution, with thousands of campaigners staging protests at beaches last weekend to mark the official start of swimming season.

The RAE report calls on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make improvements monitor rivers, lakes and coastal waters and to better warn the public about the health risks when they are polluted.

Water companies also need to reduce the amount of wastewater released from overflows by building storage tanks, private sewer and sustainable drainage systems, the report said. They must also improve wastewater treatment by using technology such as ultraviolet disinfection and introducing proactive maintenance of the pipeline network.

The academy recommends introducing measures to encourage the public to remove impermeable hard surfaces from homes in urban areas, such as patios or paved gardens. This will allow more water to be absorbed into the ground, which would otherwise flow into wastewater pipes and increase the risk of overflows.

Sir Chris warns that even treated wastewater can still contain human bacteria and viruses that can cause serious illness if swallowed.

Sewage overflows during heavy rains are only “half the problem, not the whole problem,” because some human fecal organisms remain in the treated water when the wastewater is returned to the environment. “The water is getting lower [levels]the less they are diluted,” he added.

“So if the river here is very low because it has dried up recently, it is a great place for children to row boats and for people to swim.

“But it’s time. . . then a much higher proportion of fecal microorganisms will escape from wastewater treatment works than from storm overflows.”

The researchers acknowledged a lack of evidence to prove a direct causal link between specific wastewater discharges and specific health incidents. However, they highlight the known health risks posed by exposure to high concentrations of the organism in feces.

“The main reason for the sewer system’s existence is to protect public health,” Whitty said.

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