Devon swimmers asked to submit poo samples over sewage fears

People who regularly swim in rivers and the sea are being asked to submit poo samples as researchers fear bacteria in polluted waters is becoming resistant to antibiotics. It comes amid concerns about sewage being discharged into open waters.

The University of Exeter researchers say that our coastal and fresh waters are at risk from sewage and run-off pollution from farms and that these problems are being exacerbated by climate change. Coming into contact with contaminated water can cause a range of issues ear infections, skin rashes, respiratory illness, diarrhoea, and stomach cramps.

Contaminated water in Devon made national headlines in May when the cryptosporidium parasite got into drinking water in Brixham, believed to have been caused by a damaged air valve on private land. Large areas of the town have been under a boil water notice, that was finally lifted for all remaining households this week.

In February this year, it was announced that mum Jo Bateman was taking South West Water to court, claiming that sewage had been discharged into the sea and had harmed her health, causing her to stop her daily swims in Exmouth.

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Swimmers are now being asked to take part in the 'poo sticks' project, submitting a faecal sample and sharing information about their recent swimming activities, dietary habits and overall lifestyle and health. They are also asked to encourage non-swimmers of a similar age and gender to take part so that responses can be compared to see if exposure to water pollution causes differences in gut bacteria.

Professor Will Gaze from the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health said: "Our aim is to provide evidence that can inform decision making to reduce risk to water users and inform change to safeguard our natural environment.

"This research is timely as we are seeing a steep increase in antibiotic resistant infections and is of particular concern given the increased attention the quality of our river and coastal water is currently receiving."

Blue Adapt, an organisation which is investigating how climate change is enabling pathogens to evolve and multiple, has urged anyone who swims in coastal waters and uses the Surfers Against Sewage app to take part in an online survey. It aims to find out whether having access to real-time information about water quality impacts how swimmers behave and whether it reduces preventable illnesses.

Abigail Dixon, 48 and from Exeter, started swimming in the sea to come to terms with the grief of losing her dad. She regularly swims with her husband and two teenage daughters but says she has become concerned about sewage.

She said: "Sea swimming has become so important to me. I found it extremely healing when dad died. It’s a really wholesome activity that unites our family, and it’s so good for mental health.

"This year I’ve definitely been swimming less than I’d like. I was put off by the water quality warnings in April, and I warn my girls not to put their heads under water. It’s disgusting to think about, but we still swim, because the benefits to all our physical and mental health are so valuable to us.

"This new University of Exeter research is really important. We need to understand what the risk really is to human health, so we can make informed decisions and so that decision-makers and companies understand the levels of harm to health."