A secondary school teacher was forced to stop working after developing an incurable ear condition he believes was caused by surfing in sewage-polluted water.
Reuben Santer told Sky News he has had “an awful nine months” after contracting Meniere’s disease, which has caused him to have severe dizzy spells and hearing loss.
His case has been highlighted by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) who say reports to them of being sick after entering the water have nearly tripled in the last year.
Their concerns come as the chair of the water regulator Ofwat is to face a grilling from MPs tomorrow on how water companies plan to invest in crumbling infrastructure that has led to sewage regularly being spilled in UK waterways.
SAS says that as well as being an environmental problem, the sewage scandal is increasingly a public health one too.
Reuben’s problems started last November when the 33-year-old developed an infection in his middle ear after a surf at Saunton Beach in Devon.
“I had this really loud, intense ringing in one side the day after a surf,” he told Sky News.
“I thought I was having a haemorrhage; I had no idea what was going on. I went to the doctor and they said it was a middle ear infection likely caused by dirty water but it’s impossible to prove.”
Reuben’s symptoms went away with antibiotics but he fell ill a month later after going back in the water for the first time. He only realised afterwards that a sewage pollution warning had been in place and a day later he was “throwing up, having intense rotational vertigo, I completely lost my balance”. It emerged he had labyrinthitis in his inner ear.
“You can normally recover from that but somehow it triggered Meniere’s disease which is the same symptoms but chronically. It doesn’t have a known cure.
“I’ve had a really awful nine months, the worst thing is I lost my job.
“Being a teacher is stressful, I could not handle being in a classroom and having unpredictable attacks of vertigo…when everything around you is spinning. It was pretty traumatic.
“I haven’t been going out on my own, I haven’t been driving when I was previously an independent person so that’s been pretty tough. I also have hearing loss in my left ear and roaring tinnitus and sound sensitivity.”
Reports of sickness up by nearly a third
While the definite cause of Rueben’s condition is not provable, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) is concerned about a rise in people getting sick from dirty water.
In its annual Water Quality Report released this week, the campaign group said between October 2022 and September 2023 1,924 people reported getting ill after entering the water – up from 720 the year previously.
Of those who visited a doctor, three out of four people said the doctor attributed their illness to exposure to sewage-polluted waters.
The illnesses caused an estimated five years worth of sick days and the majority of cases happened at bathing sites considered to be “excellent” quality, the SAS report said.
Surfer ‘horrified’ to contract parasite
Naomi Jenkin, 37, was ill for three weeks after she contracted the parasite cryptosporidium following a surf in Newquay in the spring.
“It’s something that you get from water that’s contaminated with sewage,” she said. “I was horrified.”
She said her symptoms included being “doubled up in pain and feeling nauseous”.
“I had to just stop work and basically take myself to bed. I had a really bad stomach upset, and it basically went on for three weeks in total, so it really affected my life quite a lot.
“It’s also knocked my confidence to go back into the water.”
In some cases, sicknesses caused by suspected sewage pollution have been so severe people had to be hospitalised.
Robbie Bowman fell ill a few hours after going for a swim with a scrape on his leg in Cardiff and was found by his son “lying on the floor, waving my arms about, not making any sense”.
In hospital he was diagnosed with the bacterial infection cellulitis and kept on intravenous antibiotics for a week as doctors feared he had sepsis.
He told Sky News that he spent most of August “with my leg up trying to encourage the healing of my skin and the blisters on the back of my calf” and his skin is still red. A possible cause was given as Golden Staph, which can be caused by swimming in dirty water.
“It has quite massively impacted me,” he said. “I don’t trust the water anymore. That for me is the biggest shame.”
General Election ‘tipping point for change’
Giles Bristow, the CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, said the rise in sickness reports could be due to more people being aware of the sewage scandal and linking their health issues to that.
But he said more people are using water for recreational activities at the same time as rampant sewage dumping so “it’s bound to be that more people are getting ill”.
While firms are allowed to discharge sewage overflow when there is too much rainfall, this is only meant to happen in exceptional circumstances – yet several investigations over the past few years have found it is regularly happening illegally.
The SAS’s report found that untreated sewage was discharged across waterways in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales more than 399,864 times – over 1,000 times a day.
Mr Bristow said the report “reveals the complacency and disregard of governments, water companies and regulators towards the health of rivers and coastlines in the UK – and by extension people’s health”.
With a general election looming, he called on all parties to adopt the SAS’s End Sewage Pollution Manifesto – a five point plan that includes cracking down on the profits made by water companies and ensuing regulators have resources to enforce pollution laws.
“This is an absolutely key issue for the public and we’ve got a mandate for change like never before,” he said.
“You wouldn’t put up with a Victorian health system where you turn up to your doctors and they give you a leech. So why should we put up with turning up to use our rivers and sees and finding it’s a Victorian system that discharges pollution into our waterways?”
Government admits sewage dumping ‘unacceptable’
A Defra spokesperson admitted the levels of sewage dumping in UK waterways is “unacceptable” but insisted action was being taken to address it.
They pointed to the Plan for Water which will see firms face unlimited fines for sewage dumping.
“This plan includes targets so strict they are leading to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £60bn over 25 years – which in turn will result in hundreds of thousands fewer sewage discharges,” the spokesperson said.
Industry body Water UK has said it is prepared to almost double that spending to pay for upgrades and cut sewage discharges.
However, there is anger at the suggestion to increase consumer bills to fund it – given the large bonuses and dividends made by water company bosses in recent years.
The issue looks set to become a key battleground when voters next go to the polls, especially in rural and coastal areas traditionally represented by Conservative MPs – but which the Lib Dems are looking to take.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ environmental spokesperson, called the SAS report an “insult” to people “who want to swim in their local river or sea without getting sick”, and called on the Conservatives to “ban bonuses for water company bosses until this filthy practice is brought to an end”.
Labour’s shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said the water industry “is broken after 13 years of Tory government” and Labour “will give Ofwat the powers to ban the payment of bonuses to water bosses until they have cleared up their filth”.