Professor David Butler is one of the authors of the NEPC public health report , called Testing the waters: Priorities for mitigating health risks from wastewater pollution.

One of the world’s foremost experts in water engineering has co-authored a pivotal new report which outlines key priorities for mitigating human health risks from polluted water.

Professor David Butler, from the University of Exeter, is one of the authors of the NEPC public health report , called Testing the waters: Priorities for mitigating health risks from wastewater pollution, which was published recently.

The report, the first of its kind to assess how potential health risks from polluted open waters can be mitigated, calls for the national wastewater infrastructure to be upgraded to protect public health. 

The recommendations include engineering interventions to prioritise wastewater asset management, enhanced public health monitoring and updated bathing water regulations.

Professor Butler,  co-Director of the Centre for Water Systems said “Our sewerage system has been a powerful tool for protecting public health and surface water quality by removing wastewater from urban areas and treating it before it is returned to the environment.

“However, a growing population, rising urbanisation and forecasts for more frequent and intense rainfall events due to climate change mean increasing pressure is put on our overloaded system.  Furthermore, the growing popularity of open water recreation activities has increased the exposure of the public to sewage pollution.

“Added to this, greater public awareness of water pollution and the more widespread availability of water quality data are changing public expectations. Together, these issues have opened questions about the standards we expect for UK waters and how they can be achieved.”

Recreational users of natural bodies of water, such as rivers, in-land and coastal waters, are potentially at risk from pollution caused by intermittent sewage discharges from overflows and the continuous discharge of treated wastewater which still contains significant numbers of human faecal pathogens. 

While new wastewater targets and duties on water companies have aimed to reduce environmental and public health harm, the UK’s ageing infrastructure makes wastewater pollution a complex problem to address effectively.

Following discussion with the Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the Royal Academy of Engineering and its partners in the NEPC initiated this project to assess the viability of a range of interventions to mitigate the public health risks posed by sewage pollution of waters accessed by recreational users across the UK. The report outlines 15 recommendations for government, regulators and industry to reduce these risks and highlights solutions to achieve this.