Otter in UK river British Wildlife
Calendar 4 June, 2024

Public Health Crisis: Human Faeces in UK Rivers

Top scientists and engineers in the UK have raised alarm over the presence of human faeces in rivers, which poses significant risks to public health and the environment.

A report led by the Royal Academy of Engineering calls for urgent upgrades to the UK’s sewage system and more extensive testing of waterways.

Health Priorities and Environmental Concerns

England's chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, emphasized that addressing river pollution is both a public health and environmental priority. The report highlighted the necessity of improving the sewage infrastructure and implementing widespread testing to mitigate the risks.

Current Situation and Recent Incidents

Since 1950, the UK's population has grown by a third, leading to the expansion of cities and towns and the paving over of natural landscapes. This development has resulted in a higher volume of water runoff into sewage systems, putting these often ageing infrastructures under additional strain.

Despite improvements in water quality over the past thirty years, ra

w sewage spills remain problematic. In 2023, there was an average of 1,271 spills per day in England, doubling from the previous year. A recent incident in Devon, where residents had to use bottled water due to Cryptosporidium contamination, underscores the urgency of the issue.

Health Risks from Faecal Contamination

Consuming water contaminated with human faeces can expose individuals to harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli, causing severe gastrointestinal issues, or viruses like hepatitis A, which can lead to liver infections. Prof Barbara Evans from the University of Leeds warned that increasing amounts of faecal waste in the environment raise the risk of infectious diseases.

Calls for Action

The report recommends several measures:

  • Improved maintenance of the sewage network
  • More comprehensive data collection on faecal bacteria
  • Reviewing and updating bathing water regulations
  • Developing strategies to design cities that reduce flooding

It also suggests employing new technologies, such as UV radiation, to further disinfect treated sewage.

Government and Industry Responses

The government has launched the largest infrastructure programme in the history of UK water companies, with plans to invest heavily in bathing areas. Additionally, they announced the creation of 12 new official bathing sites, increasing the total to 15. Water UK, representing water companies, committed to doubling current spending levels by 2030, prioritizing investment in these areas.

Long-term Vision for Sustainable Urban Design

Prof David Butler from the National Engineering Policy Centre warned that urban expansion and climate change will increase pressure on the outdated wastewater system. To alleviate this, the report recommends:

  • Enhancing rainwater collection
  • Expanding natural environments like wetlands
  • Installing smart water meters

Government Initiatives

In May, the government allocated £11.5 million to local projects aimed at increasing tree planting and restoring habitats, such as the Limestone Becks, to absorb excess rainfall and runoff.


The report by the Royal Academy of Engineering underscores the critical need for immediate and long-term actions to address the faecal contamination in UK rivers. With coordinated efforts from the government, water companies and communities, public health and environmental risks can be significantly mitigated.


Top scientists urge action against faeces in rivers (BBC News, 21 May 2024) 

Testing the waters: reducing health risks from water pollution (Royal Academy of Engineering, May 2024) 

Water quality in rivers (UK Parliament, 13 January 2022) 

Raw sewage spills into England rivers and seas doubles in 2023 (BBC News, 27 March 2024) 

Water parasite outbreak to last 'at least' a week (BBC News, 16 May 2024) 

Overview of the UK population: 2020 (Office for National Statistics, 25 February 2022)

Mark Chambers Drainfast Team Portrait

Written by
Mark Chambers

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As Marketing Manager, Mark plays an active role in running strategic projects to increase our brand profile.

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