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England’s polluted rivers are breeding drug-resistant diseases

A “chemical cocktail” of sewage, plastics and waste in rivers is creating a serious threat to human, animal and plant life, a new report has warned.

“Disturbing” evidence suggests that England’s polluted rivers are becoming “breeding grounds” for drug-resistant bacteria, according to a new report published today

The study by the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee warns a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic is “choking” England’s rivers and creating serious risks to animal, human and plant life. 

MPs further warned that these pollutants are not being adequately monitored, meaning authorities don’t know exactly how much plastic, sewage, narcotics and other waste is in rivers. The report has called for “a UK-wide survey of emerging pollutants and microplastic pollution” to tackle the problem. 

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As well as presenting a serious threat to vital ecosystems, the report outlined the impact of river pollution on human health, with “sewage treatment works and the rivers they discharge into becoming breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance”.

A survey presented to the committee showed 11 of 97 waters sampled contained E. coli resistant to antibiotics, suggesting a serious risk that sewage pollution could lead to drug-resistant illnesses in humans.

The report follows months of public outrage over sewage pollution in rivers after it emerged water companies were dumping vast amounts of raw sewage, sometimes illegally, into rivers. 

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Thanks to sewage spills, along with plastic and agricultural pollution, just 14 per cent of England’s rivers are deemed to be in “good” ecological condition. None are free of chemical pollutants. 

The main sources of pollution outlined in the report are sewage spills from water companies’ storm overflows, agricultural pollution and plastics from car tyres and roads. 

In spite of a large body of evidence suggesting severe levels of pollution in England’s waterways, the committee report says there is currently no comprehensive data available to monitor the overall health of rivers. 

Such monitoring has been hampered by “monitoring arrangements variously characterised as outdated, underfunded and inadequate”, the report reads. 

Current monitoring arrangements are particularly lacking in that the range of pollutants being measured is “too narrow”, say MPs, with “emerging pollutants” like microplastics, and a range of chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals and narcotics not being systematically monitored. 

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This means there is currently no comprehensive data indicating how much of each pollutant is present in English rivers, though early studies have been damning, with data collected from the River Irwell showing there was more plastic per square metre in the river than insects. 

Environmental Audit Committee chair Philip Dunne said the committee is now calling on the government to build “a [river] system fit for the future”.

“Monitoring regimes need to be reviewed, enforcement needs to be ramped up, and even public awareness needs boosting on what can and cannot be poured down drains or flushed down the toilet. 

“So many emerging pollutants are being missed by inadequate and insufficient monitoring, and court actions against polluters have fallen dramatically,” he said.

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Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, called the report “yet another damning indictment on water companies, further exposing the pollution and polluters destroying our precious blue spaces and the chronic failure of government and regulators to protect these fragile ecosystems”. 

“The ongoing sewage scandal has made clear that the public will not accept this environmental vandalism any longer, and so we urge the Government to accept these recommendations in full and to set targets to achieve an end to sewage pollution,” he added.

The Environment Agency has been contacted for comment. 

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