The real impact

of sewage pollution

Rivers and seas are the arteries and lifeblood of the planet, transporting the water and nutrients needed to sustain thriving ecosystems – including human life.

And yet we’ve allowed our lifeline of existence to be exploited. Our precious blue spaces are being contaminated with sewage, agricultural and chemical pollutants, and in turn, humans are getting sick too.

Sewage is making us Sick!

If you’ve spent any time in the water, you’ll know of the benefits we can gain from spending time in nature.

As humans, we instinctively know that being close to water makes us happier, healthier, more peaceful and less stressed. We explored the wealth of these mental and physical health benefits in last year’s report.

Our recent survey found that over two thirds (64%) of people say access to blue space is beneficial for their physical health.

Today, there are approximately 17 million water users across the UK5, and these numbers are rapidly rising along with the increased knowledge and awareness of the mental and physical benefits of spending time in blue spaces.

But what’s far less known is the impact of when these blue space benefits are stripped away from us as a result of sewage pollution.

Figure 3
Locations of sickness reports submitted through the SSRS between October 2022 and September 2023.

For the past four years, we’ve been collating sickness reports through our Safer Seas and River Service (SSRS) to delve into the striking impact sewage pollution is having on people’s health and wellbeing all across the UK.

Getting sick from sewage

Between October 2022 and September 2023, a total of 1,924 water users reported getting ill after entering the water. That’s nearly triple the number of reports we received in 2021/2022. The numbers are nauseatingly high. And yet these are just the sickness reports submitted to us. We’re only getting a glimpse into the true scale of sewage sickness across the UK.

From surfers, sailors and swimmers to dog walkers, toe dippers and sandcastle makers, the range of illnesses contracted by adults and children of all ages is extensive.

Many of the illnesses experienced were so severe that they even caused some to be hospitalised, and a few are still sadly suffering as a result.

Robbie Bowman was hospitalised for a week after enjoying a swim with just a small scrape on his leg. He thought the salt water might be quite good for it, but it turned out not to be…

It had been about 2 hours after swimming and I started to feel ill, a bit feverish. I thought it might be Covid. I was driving home trying to keep myself compos mentis. By the time I got to Cardiff I could barely walk from the van to our house. About 2 hours later, my son came downstairs and found me lying on the floor, waving my arms about, not making any sense. I don’t remember any of that.

It has quite massively impacted me. I don’t trust the water any more. That for me is the biggest shame.”

– Robbie

It’s not just humans getting sick, but animals too. This year we saw multiple sickness reports of people claiming their dogs fell ill at the same time.

Phoenix, a 2 ½ year old puppy had to be sedated by the vets to take blood samples and paw biopsies after being made ill and making no improvement, despite being on antibiotics. The vets confirmed a diagnosis that he had contracted E. coli.

After being on medication for over a month, and totting up a £3,000 vet bill, Phoenix has now finally recovered.

It’s hard to see my puppy who is usually full of bounce and mischief in this state which was potentially caused by a holiday to the coast, he loves the water and the beach and I now loathe to take him to the coast in future as this could happen again!”

– Hannah Mills

Sickness Roulette

Of those who visited a doctor, three out of four people said the doctor attributed their illness to exposure to sewage polluted waters.

The evidence is surging

If this isn’t evidence enough, we also investigated which sickness reports were made whilst a sewage alert was in place. Unsurprisingly, this further validated doctors’ diagnoses (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Types of polluted water induced sickness reported during 2022-23.


60% of all the sickness reports submitted were from bathing waters classified as ‘Excellent’.

Taking time off work and going to hospital due to getting sick from a dip in the water doesn’t quite paint the picture of crystal-clear waters in the UK. But a massive 1,164 of the sickness reports submitted were registered at bathing waters classified as ‘excellent’ – defined as having the ‘highest, cleanest water quality’ (Figure 5).

This is deeply worrying. If we can’t swim in ‘excellent’ waters without getting sick, our odds aren’t looking good for the rest of the UK…


From the reports that had a confirmed sewage discharge and where people visited a doctor, 83% said the doctor attributed their sickness to sewage polluted waters.

It’s not just health that’s affected

It’s not just the environment and people’s health being impacted, it’s whole livelihoods and businesses too. The knock-on effects of people falling sick is impacting whole families, finances and work, as well as putting an increasing strain on the NHS.

From the Sickness Reports submitted this year, a total of 1,987 days were taken off work. That’s the equivalent of over five years.

97 people had to take a week or more off work, with one person even being forced to quit their job because of their prolonged sickness.

Reuben Santer was a Secondary School Physics Teacher who has been forced to stop working due to his illness.

After a surf at Saunton Beach in Devon, a doctor confirmed that he’d contracted labyrinthitis (an inner ear infection) due to either a virus or bacteria entering his ear. This has now developed into an incurable disease called Meniere’s disease, which Reuben now has to live with.

I have never been anxious about anything in my life, but this experience has definitely made me worried that symptoms will come back when driving, surfing, at work or any situation where vertigo could be dangerous.”

– Reuben

As the risk of getting sick from sewage becomes more prominent, people are starting to change their behaviour by avoiding going in the water or booking holidays at their once-favourite seaside town.

Areas that are reliant on tourism and our blue spaces are being hit particularly hard.

As we see sickness from sewage sweeping through every corner of the UK, we’re reminded of the sheer scale of the sewage scandal. It’s not just affecting the hardcore surfers and swimmers, it’s affecting everyone. Where the issues and solutions to fix the sewage pollution issue vary between devolved nations, the consequences look remarkably similar. And unless we fix the problem, the environment, wildlife, and people will keep getting sick.

Figure 5
Number of sickness reports by bathing water classification, and the current number of each type of classification in the UK.

Impacts on the economy

UK marine recreation has an estimated gross value total of £1.29 billion6, making the marine environment a vital asset to the UK economy7.

However, recreational activities and employment opportunities are dependent on environmental factors such as water quality7 which, as we know, is a far-cry from gold standard.

When coastal water quality is improved, the number of visits to a beach location can increase by an average of 52% and by 64% when improved on a stretch of river8.

Therefore, improving the quality of UK waters is vital to ensure coastal communities and those that rely on the water for employment and wellbeing, do not suffer.

But we are not seeing improvements.

As we reveal the true extent of the pollution entering the water across the UK, it’s becoming clear that the economic impact of sewage pollution is far more wide-reaching than any of us truly recognised.

The surge of sewage discharges at popular bathing sites over the last year has resulted in ongoing disappointment of water-based events being cancelled, water sport activities having to be rescheduled and charity events left unable to raise funds. As the frequency of these cancellations pick up, the knock on effects to communities, businesses and charities start to stack up, chipping away at the UK economy, and the livelihoods of those that work in our blue spaces across the UK.

We’ve spoken to Steve from Scarborough on how regular sewage discharges onto South Bay beach has forced him to shut his surf shop.

My shop has been closed all summer. From the 6th May the RNLI put the red flags up as the beach was at a poor quality here in Scarborough. A week later the council took all the flags down and put warning signs up. I decided at that point that I can’t take people surfing.

I couldn’t carry out any lessons on the beach when the lifeguards themselves think it’s unfit to go in.

My income stopped dead on the 6th May. It’s only because my dad died last year that I’m surviving now because I was left some money. If it wasn’t for that I would be out on the street.”

– Steve

At the Wave Project, we use the sea and the ocean as a therapeutic space for our young people.

When there has been a sewage alert, we are then unable to get in the water with the young people. We have had to postpone or cancel some of our sessions. Whilst for a lot of people that doesn’t sound so bad, for some young people, we hear from their parents that looking forward to the Wave Project is the only thing they look forward to that week, for some young people it’s the only reason they leave the house that week. Postponing
for them, has a huge mental health impact on them.

We’re cancelling last minute on people who really need that health intervention.”

– Siobhan Swift

Siobhan Swift is Head of Operations at The Wave Project in Scarborough. They have had to cancel and postpone surf therapy sessions due to sewage pollution alerts which has a huge impact on the young people she works with.

Explore all of the

Nation focus reports

Wild swimmers and water users in England
Nation focus: England
Activists in Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland holding up a sign that says "Extinction means forever"
Nation focus: Northern Ireland
SAS team members in Scotland wearing gas masks holding up a sign that says "tell the truth"
Nation focus: Scotland
Nation focus: Wales