Chris Whitty warns against paddling in rivers this summer

Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty (Aaron Chown / PA)
Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty (Aaron Chown / PA)

Sir Chris Whitty has warned that, even when water treatment plants are operating as intended, there is still a risk of infection from paddling in rivers this summer.

The chief medical officer of England stated that effluent, or treated water discharged into rivers by treatment facilities, included quantities of faecal bacteria that could be hazardous.

“An ordinary, well-working sewage treatment works will still, when effluent goes into the water course, have some viable organisms. They will have gone down a very long way from when they went in but there will still be some available,” he said.

Whitty cautioned that because some human faecal organisms stay in treated water after it is released back into the environment, sewage overflows during wet seasons are just "half the problem, not the full problem”.According to the chief medical officer, the problem is greater during hot, dry spells when there are lower water levels since faecal matter concentrations rise during these times.

Whitty, who thinks the problem should be a ‘major’ public health priority, supported a recent report from the National Engineering Policy Centre that describes engineering fixes for the UK's failing water infrastructure with an emphasis on public health.

The research team concluded that, in order to lower exposure to human faecal pathogens in effluent-treated water that is redirected into rivers, lakes, and seas, the UK's wastewater infrastructure needs to be upgraded.As a result of increased recreational use of inland and coastal open waters, the public is exposed to more pollutants, according to the research.

Other suggested short-term measures include enhancing and expanding the monitoring of microbes and water quality, as well as re-evaluating bathing water standards in light of the most recent research.The engineers proposed that a restriction on solid products that clog water systems, such as wet wipes, may free up funds allocated to other options for clearing obstructions.

It coincides with a new controversy around water quality that erupted last week following revelations of millions of gallons of raw sewage being pumped into Windermere and confirmed cases of the waterborne disease cryptosporidium in Devon.