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17 May 2022

Sand, sea and sewage: how to check you’re not swimming in untreated waste

We assess the risk at your favourite coastal towns and tell you how to stay safe this summer

Reports of raw sewage being dumped into our seas could take the shine off your UK beach break 

In 2020, effluent was discharged into the UK’s rivers and seas more than 400,000 times – equal to three million hours of toxic spillages.

This resulted in one in six swimming days being lost at Britain’s beaches during the official bathing season (15 May to 30 September), according to campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

"I have often been caught in the disgusting everyday impact of this environmental neglect, surfing at the mouth of rivers where suddenly the rancid stench of sewage surrounds me, forcing a hasty exit,' shares Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS. Or, swimming through crystal clear waters only to traverse a slick of human excrement, recently discharged from a sewer overflow."

How can I check if it's safe to swim?

Thankfully you can make sure your trip to the coast won’t be blighted before leaving the house.

The Safer Seas & Rivers Service app alerts users in real time when untreated human sewage is discharged into the sea or when water quality is affected by extreme weather.

The free-to-use app covers 390 beaches across England, Scotland and Wales. Just type the name of the beach into the search bar to check if any water quality alerts are in place before you travel.

Always be extra cautious after spells of heavy rainfall when surface water is washed into our rivers and seas. This can contain pollution from urban and agricultural run-off, as well as leakage from septic tanks.

The Environment Agency website Swimfo also allows you to check water quality at more than 400 locations during bathing season. Signs at the beach will also alert you if the sea is potentially unsafe for swimming.

Illegal sewage spills

Water companies are only supposed to use sewer overflows - which empty untreated sewage into our rivers and seas - in exceptional circumstances, or during periods of heavy rainfall, to stop water backing up into homes. Yet the data suggests this is happening routinely.

Water companies should issue a notification after every discharge, with bathing not advised for the next 48 hours. Discharges also happen off season, but not all companies provide year-round data.

In 2019, Southern Water was accused of under-reporting the number of illegal pollution spills it had made. The company was fined a record £90 million for deliberately dumping 21 billion litres of raw sewage at some of Kent and Hampshire’s best-loved beaches over a five-year period.

A danger to human health

Untreated sewage threatens our fragile ecosystem and human health, causing everything from ear infections to severe gastroenteritis.

Water companies: ‘self-reporting and self-regulating’

Water UK, which represents the industry, told us that ‘our beaches and coastal bathing waters have never been in better shape, with more than 90% rated as either excellent or good’. This compares with less than a third in the 1990s. 

However, Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, believes that UK bathing waters are among the worst in the world. He told Which? Travel: ‘The water industry has been self-reporting and self-regulating for too long. The government must step in to set and enforce new legislation, and strongly regulate those who persistently pollute our waterways.

Is the coast clear? Pollution risks at the top-rated UK seaside towns

Bamburgh, Northumberland

Ranked the UK's best seaside town, Bamburgh's glorious three-mile stretch of golden sand was praised for its lack of crowds and litter. No sewage is dumped directly into the waters. But there are two storm and one emergency overflow on the Mill Burn stream, which flows across the northern end of the beach – a popular spot for swimmers. No alerts have been issued so far this year. Reassuringly, Bamburgh’s water quality is classified as excellent by the Environment Agency. 

See the UK's best and worst seaside towns, as voted for by you

Llandudno, Conwy

Second overall and the number one seaside destination in Wales, Llandudno has two beaches. The West Shore is a peaceful stretch of sand, shingle and dunes - and its water quality is rated excellent. In contrast, bathing waters at North Shore - a two-mile long promenade  - are sufficient, the lowest acceptable grade. The main pollution is thought to originate from the network of surface water drains in the nearby town. The Environment Agency says Sewage debris was observed ‘in trace amounts on less than 10% of occasions’.

St Andrews, Fife

This Scottish paradise offers first-class culture and shopping on top of its magnificent beaches. Both West and East Sands have been rated excellent for the quality of their bathing waters. However, SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) warns that water quality can be reduced for up to 72 hours after heavy rainfall. That’s because contaminants can be washed in from surface runoff, flood water and sewer overflows.

Dartmouth, Devon

Dartmouth’s quiet secluded coves are controlled by South West Water, which, after Southern Water, issued the most alerts in 2021. Thankfully, according to the data, none of these were for Blackpool Sands – a pine-fringed bay two and a half miles from town. A Blue Flag beach, its waters are classified as excellent.

Tenby, Pembrokeshire

You gave Tenby’s beaches five stars in our survey and bathing water is classified as excellent at Castle Beach and Tenby South. The golden sweep of Tenby North, peppered with rock pools and windbreaks, is rated good. Again assessments of sewage debris at this beach found only trace amounts on less than 10% of occasions. Just three pollution alerts have been recorded so far this year for all three beaches - when water quality was affected by heavy rainfall.