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Across the south of England, severe rain and flooding has lead to hundreds of reports of raw sewage oozing up in backyards and human waste washing into flooded homes, adding a potential health crisis to the storm-battered region.
In Maidenhead, an affluent suburb of London, many residents have had sewage in their backyards for over two months.
“I accept flooding but it is the sewage that’s the problem. The smell comes up through the plug-hole in our kitchen. There’s bits of toilet paper in the garden,” June Dobbs told the Maidenhead Advertiser.
Many cities and towns in the U.K. rely largely on Victorian-era combined stormwater and sewage systems which have become completely overwhelmed by both the intensity and duration of the winter storms. When the systems can’t hold any more water, they spew raw sewage mixed with stormwater into streams and down main streets.
Last weekend, the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo called the U.K.’s months of stormy weather the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years” and said that the extreme weather was “consistent with climate change.”
“All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change,” she said. “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”
The contaminated floodwater poses a serious health risk. It can be a nasty cocktail of E.coli, salmonella and campylobacter bacteria from animal waste and human sewage can add the norovirus to the mix.
Dr. Ben Neuman, a microbiologist from the University of Reading, who tested water samples around a flooded house in the Somerset Levels found much higher levels of bacteria than normal — about 70,000 bacteria per 100 milliliter. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 500 bacteria per 100 milliliter of water is safe for bathing, and 1,000 per milliliter is acceptable for agricultural water.
Dr. Neuman likened the concentration of bacteria as equivalent to dissolving a couple of teaspoons of horse manure in an office water cooler.
“I think there will be a big spike in diarrhoea, but people may not end up reporting it to the public health authorities,” he told The Independent. “It will be unpleasant, but not deadly.”
James Winslade, a farmer who lives in the Sommerset Levels told a local reporter that 95 percent of his farm was underwater — between two to ten feet deep.
“Two sewage farms and all the septic tanks from the villages have flooded. We’ve got raw sewage and syringes and tampons, you name it, washing up against the house. We can’t let the children out anymore because of the smell and the contamination,” he said.
The brutal battering the southern coast of England has endured this winter has also exposed an old landfill site in Northam on the Devon Coast. Dating back to the 1940s the landfill was capped in 1995, but coastal erosion accelerated by recent wild weather has started to expose the trash, worrying residents that the garbage will soon fall into the estuary.
“It’s like a putrid pie with its crust cut off,” local district councilor David Brenton told the Plymouth Herald.
Residents who come into contact with floodwater are being advised to wash their hands regularly and to be especially careful if they have cuts or other skin abrasions.
Public Health England (PHE) is also monitoring reports from hospitals and family doctors for any indications of an outbreak of infectious disease and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been meeting with COBRA, the government’s national emergencies committee.