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Covid in a warm climate or why are we crying out for bathing water quality of English rivers.

June 18th, 2020 in featured by Noreen Shears

Rivers and water related disease.

In the early 1900s an outbreak of cholera was traced back to people swimming from the Brayford Wharf in Lincoln. The local city council enacted local regulations and passed a bylaw making it illegal to swim in the waters of the River Witham and docks in Lincoln. This was the last known case of cholera recorded as home grown in the UK.

In the 1940s and 1950s there was a huge rise in cases of polio that killed some, crippled others whilst many recovered. The last recorded case of river swimming derived polio was at Rahat, Israel in 2013 (BMJ)


These two examples are now historic, but that is never the full story, as creatures evolve, diseases also mutate. The most relevant being Corona virus (Covid 19) which is a mutation of a lesser virus known as SARs (CoV 2) Both strains of this respiratory illness originating from the same city, Wuhan in China. Both forms have been shown to have survived passing through the human gut and into sewage systems and however well a sewage system may work it does not kill even 99% of such bacteria.


The hospitals that have treated thousands of extremely ill people have had by necessity to flush the patients’ virus infected excreta and urine away in quantity. The hospitals and the infected population cannot do anything beyond hope that the disease in the sewage is killed off by sewage treatment and any residual virus might be diluted by that of the waste of those that are uninfected, plus the other sources of liquid waste passing though the sewers to be treated. Such waste is process waters from factories, breweries, and chemical works. Sadly, most of these industrial sources have been closed due to lockdown and the usual failsafe dilutant, the British weather has been remarkably lacking in rain.


My concern in writing this short outline, is that the media have been reporting that the ‘public’ are demanding bathing water standards for British rivers. Hold on, the rivers of this country are far cleaner than they have ever been, especially since the Industrial Revolution. Rivers are though by their nature drains that take water coming from both the ground and sky to the sea, a simple and necessary act, it avoids flooding and allows agriculture to flourish, and has done since the dawn of time


Today river base flows are less, abstraction from aquifers to supply the ever-increasing population and as these water levels dwindle the treated water from sewage treatment plants (supplied by the population) make up the flows in the rivers. The River Trent in summer months can be made up of 40% or more wastewater.


Wildlife is returning, fish and otters, kingfishers, and beavers, but these are much more resilient than humans.


The pictures of people gambling in the waters of Pulteney Weir in Bath or swimming in the Isis by Oxford look wonderful. Drowning is a first hazard, then the microbes get their chance. Many of these people will have a plastic bottle of water they have bought because they are suspicious of that that comes from their kitchen tap, but they will take in the river water even with mouths shut. Through cuts, their eyes and nose. Water getting into their ears will reach their sinuses. This is not healthy.  When they leave the riverbank, they swap their now empty bottle and return home coated in bacteria and their bottle bobbing towards the ocean.


The National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierpont is renowned for its tummy bugs with many canoeists and others suffering from gastrointestinal issues. The water that passes through the centre’s watercourse is from the River Trent and is no better or worse than most other large ‘first world’ countries rivers. It appears to affect people more in summer than in winter, but that is not really a surprise: the higher temperatures make viruses and bacteria multiply. It is further true that more people use the facilities in warmer weather.


The Trust has had several policepersons come to us and report their own or their colleges problems: it is not unusual for the police to have to recover bodies from rivers, it is though a surprise how many of those doing the recoveries go on to suffer many health issues, not through the trauma of the act but effects of the water they have come into contact with. One might expect some might do down with Weil’s disease, an illness contracted from encountering rat urine, it is everywhere along every riverbank, but no. The officers suffer intestinal and other problems. Some suffer blood disorders or heart or lung infections. Not many receive their due acknowledgement for their symptoms.


The comedian David Walliams, a noted ‘free swimmer’ swam the length of the River Thames a few years ago in full knowledge that he may have problems of infection and upsets of his bowl, he did and had to allow his waste to flow past. How much worse with the prospect of a pandemic virus present.


Many people who venture into the water of a UK river in the heat of summer should not, and if they do, they should understand that they do so at their own risk. Cleaner rivers are what we aim for but to have safe swimming for all is not feasible, especially in these difficult times with Covid likely lurking beneath the surface.

Author: Noreen Shears

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