Flash floods cause pollution and health risk for beaches

Heavy storms and flooding across the UK is causing a potential pollution and health risk to Britain's beaches, the Marine Conservation Society has warned. The group is calling for permanent signs on beaches to warn bathers of risks to health from sewage and diffuse pollution.

The main danger comes from combined sewage overflows (CSO) and storm water outfalls sited on or near beaches. Following periods of extreme heavy rainfall, CSOs divert untreated sewage away from local treatment plants and discharge directly into rivers and coastal waters.

There are roughly 25,000 CSOs in the UK, many in close proximity to beaches and rivers, and sewage pollution from outfalls has been the major source of bacterial pollution in coastal waters for the past century.

Sam Fanshawe, director of conservation for the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) told edie that one of the problems was that often nobody even knew where the CSOs were.

"Some areas are still trying to map them," she said. "There is a lot of work being done by the Environment Agency and the water companies to assess the potential risks the CSOs pose and we applaud their efforts."

"The basic fact is that our system is not designed to cope with the sort of extreme weather patterns we've had over the last month or so. This sort of weather is expected to become more common so the public needs to be aware of the dangers and change their behaviour accordingly," she said. "Having signs on the beaches - at the very least on the most popular swimming ones, would warn people of the danger, especially after heavy rainfall."

She said that diffuse pollution, from such things as increased agricultural run off, was also a big problem but less likely to be a cause of health risks to swimmers.

Thomas Bell, MCS Good Beach Officer, said: "The water quality monitoring data from May onwards shows periodic surges in faecal pollution at beaches with normally very good water quality. These temporary peaks in faecal bacteria load seem to correlate with big storm events. We accept that pollution surges are at present an almost unavoidable consequence of heavy rain. MCS is therefore urging the government and beach managers to adopt a mandatory national scheme to provide permanent public information about storm pollution on every bathing beach."

There are already limited beach signage schemes around the UK advising swimmers about problems from heavy rain. A bathing waters signage project has been in operation in Scotland for almost two years and is operated by SEPA.

During the 2004 season ten locations throughout Scotland have been trialed to display electronic variable messages of predicted water quality. The project is still very much a pilot but has been very successful so far, predicting correct or precautionary water quality conditions on 98% of days. A review of the project will take place at the end of 2004.

By David Hopkins



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