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River Pollution

In spite of considerable money having been spent over the last couple of decades on improvements to sewerage systems in the UK there is still a huge problem with effluent entering rivers.

A quick search of the BBC news web site for ‘sewage discharge’ brings up about 100 quite recent articles on the subject such as this one about the Thames along with this one attracting a £20 million fine. This one puts the problem in the European context and this shows the ongoing nature of the problem.

The problem eventually ends up in the sea and SURFERS AGAINST SEWAGE  have campaigned on this issue for a long time and their website is fairly graphic. To quote from their web site :

One of the biggest pollution problems along the UK coastline is still sewage. Despite SAS’s huge success at virtually eliminating all continuous sewage outfalls around the UK there are some notable ‘brown spots’ across the country where raw sewage is still discharged on a daily basis, including Brighton, Guernsey, the Thames and across Northern Ireland. The major nationwide threat nowadays however is combined sewer overflows (CSO’s) and their misuse by water companies.

According to the water industry itself, there are approximately 31,000 CSO’s around the UK, many of which are completely unregulated. The CSO is a kind of emergency outlet for the sewerage system, discharging raw sewage and wastewater into rivers and the sea when the system is overloaded. However, it appears that many CSO’s are being used too frequently as a means of regular sewage disposal, not just in the extreme weather conditions they are designed for.

The problem exists for several reasons:

  • some of the systems are still old or inadequate for increasing population densities.
  • In some cases, discharges are deliberately allowed to happen. For instance many streams and rivers are licensed to receive overflow from drains a certain number of times per year, often during periods of high rainfall when surface water runoff overwhelms the drainage system. This known as a CSO. This is often abused
  • In other cases the problem is chemicals which do not break down properly in the sewage works. Typical of this problem are hormones in the sewage, such as those produced by the female contraceptive pill. They damage fish populations by feminising the male fish as in this article.
  • sometimes it is by accident like when 100 million litres of sewage leaked into the Firth of Forth in 2008

There is an Environment Agency map called Bathing Water Quality which shows the water quality for English beaches.

see our page on composting toilets and their rôle in reducing sewage pollution.


There is growing concern about the huge amount of microfibers which are being released into rivers and the sea. These are produced when clothes are washed in washing machines and the worry is not so much about the fibers themselves as about how they can bioaccumulate toxins as explained in this Guardian article. See also this BBC article on clothing fibres polluting rivers.

Feminising agents

These are chemicals which get flushed down toilets and end up in rivers. It is now estimated that 1 wild fish in every 5 in Britain exhibits feminised traits. See this BBC article.

Pharmaceutical pollution

Recent studies on the rivers Aire and Calder in West Yorkshire have shown high levels of Pharmaceutical pollution

Handling waste water and sewage locally on site by means of composting toilets and grey water treatment can remove these problems. See Waste recycling

The other important way of preventing drains and sewers overflowing is SUDS.


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