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Protestor with placard protesting sewage pollution in the Thames
Photograph: JessicaGirvan /

Yuck: the River Thames is apparently the UK’s ‘worst place’ for sewage in the water

High levels of E. coli have been found in a stretch of the Thames in London

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

Sewage has been a big problem in the UK’s waterways and seas for years now. According to the Environment Agency, there were 3.6 million hours of raw sewage spills in the UK’s water in 2022. In 2023, those spills by water companies more than doubled. 

It’s now been revealed that London could be facing the brunt of the sewage scandal, clean water campaigners have claimed. The Henley Mermaids, a five-person group of outdoor swimmers, has called for Thames Water to be taken into public ownership.

This comes days after rowers in the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race criticised sewage levels in the water and said some team members were sick because of it. High levels of E. coli were found in the River Thames by Putney Bridge where the universities race every year.

Laura Reineke, one of the Henley Mermaids, told the BBC: ‘We are still swimming in it but we are not putting our heads in and we’re being very careful indeed.

‘There’s condoms, sanitary products, paper, there’s even a toilet cassette from a boat. It’s absolutely filthy, I’ve never seen it so filthy.’

Thames Water said taking action to improve the health of rivers was a ‘key focus’, with plans including the upgrade of more than 250 storm sewer discharge sites. The water company blamed higher than average rainfall on the rise in levels of sewage in London’s water. 

London’s famed super sewer, which promises to divert 34 of the most polluting sewage outflows that flow into the Thames, was recently completed. It plans to open in 2025. 

A Thames Water spokesperson said: ‘We have experienced higher than average long-term rainfall across London and the Thames Valley with groundwater levels exceptionally high for the time of the year.

‘Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us and we want to lead the way with our transparent approach to data.’

A government spokesperson said: ‘We have been clear that the sewage discharged into our waters is completely unacceptable and water companies need to clean up their act fast.’ 

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