The deadly effects of sewage pollution on nature - Natural History Museum

Sewage in Britain's waterways has been hitting the headlines recently. But what effect does raw waste have on our rivers, streams and oceans?

Recent weeks have witnessed a public outcry after the House of Commons declined to force water companies to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged into the UK's rivers.

The Government had argued that the amendment would have cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of pounds, although it later agreed to introduce changes to the law following a high-profile campaign.

Sewage is a danger to human health, but it also has a huge impact on the animals and plants living in waterways.

For instance, algal blooms are encouraged by the presence of sewage and can lead to the deaths of many other species.

Dr Anne Jungblut, Principal Researcher in algae, fungi and plants at the Museum, says algal blooms are 'a big problem.'

'Blooms can lead to a change in biodiversity,' she says, 'and can impact the functioning and richness of an ecosystem. Algae has a huge impact on an ecosystem and big blooms can change the whole river.'

The politics

To prevent sewers becoming overwhelmed, water companies are allowed to release sewage into rivers in emergencies. This generally occurs in times of heavy rain to prevent the sewers backing up into buildings.

In 2020, sewage was released into the UK's waterways on over 400,000 occasions, with wastewater overflow from utility firms lasting for over 3.1 million hours.

On average, each storm overflow the companies operate is in use for 11 days a year, rising to almost 20 for Thames Water.

These figures only encompass the events water companies have self-reported, with firms having broken the law in recent years. For instance, Southern Water was fined £90 million after admitting thousands of illegal discharges between 2010 and 2015.

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Posted On: 04/11/2021

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