As we go into a lockdown scenario, many of you will be looking to the Ocean for your daily dose of exercise and wellbeing. As a charity that was founded on campaigning to stop us being made sick from entering the sea, your health is one of our top most concerns. So, we have been doing some research about the potential impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on water quality, and if there are any additional risks we face by entering the water.
Whilst we don’t believe there is great cause for additional concern, we hope that you find this information useful in order to stay fit and healthy during this global pandemic. Remember, we all currently need to stay at home, stay safe and help protect the NHS. Please play your part.
What is COVID-19?
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a newly identified respiratory illness emerging in China, December 2019. The virus can be spread through person-to-person contact (within 6 feet proximity for a duration of 10 minutes or more) via respiratory droplets. Given the new status of COVID-19, the transmission risk from an infected person’s faeces and through sewage systems is not yet known, but a better understanding can be achieved looking at other coronaviruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Can I catch COVID-19 if I enter the sea?
COVID-19 has been detected in the faeces of infected patients. However, the amount that is shed, how long it is shed, and whether it is infectious in the stool itself is not yet known. However, given COVID-19 is likely to behave like other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS, our understanding of these viruses suggests that the risk is low. So far, there have been no reports of faecal-oral transmission of COVID-19.
The new status of the virus means transmission pathways are not yet fully understood. Whilst there is currently no evidence of COVID-19 transmission through sewage systems, standard municipal wastewater system practices are thought to be sufficient to inactivate COVID-19. However, past coronaviruses have been found to persist in untreated sewage so where there is incomplete wastewater disinfection or CSO (combined sewer overflow) discharges there is some risk of transmission. We can look at other coronaviruses to help us assess this risk. SARS was detected in untreated sewage for up to 2-14 days during the 2003 outbreak. However, the fragility of this coronavirus in the open environment ensures transmission risk remained low. It is likely that COVID-19 will have similar vulnerabilities in the environment.
Nonetheless, high water and sanitation hygiene standards should be upheld, especially handwashing with soap and water to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the entire sanitation value chain, the safe management of human faeces should still be considered such as ensuring access to clean and functioning toilets and the safe containment, treatment and disposal of sewage.
Can I still do water sports in the sea to stay fit and healthy?
In order for us to protect ourselves and reduce the pressure on our health services over the coming months, we must follow government advice and stay at home. If you do choose to enter the water, overall, the available evidence indicates that there could be a minor elevated risk from untreated sewage. We would strongly advise that you download and check information provided by our Safer Seas Service, the UK’s only real time water quality information service, through which the majority of water companies issue CSO discharge notifications. The app will point you towards beaches with no recent pollution incidents.
Hugo Tagholm, our Chief Executive says:
“Firstly, it’s important to stress that during the coming weeks it is vital that people stay home to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed during the Covid-19 pandemic. This pandemic shows just how important year-round water quality information is, and further justifies our ongoing campaign to tackle combined sewer overflows that pollute our beaches and bathing waters. Make sure you stay informed for your favourite beach by downloading the Safer Seas Service.”
We are working behind the scenes to ensure those water companies that do not currently issue sewage discharge notification outside the bathing season to provide a critical public health service to all water users. At SAS home based HQ’s we will continue to campaign hard to tackle CSO discharges, secure year-round live information on sewage pollution, and challenge water companies to reinvest more of their profits in protecting surf spots and bathing waters. We want to end sewage discharge into UK bathing waters by 2030 and have #OceanOptimism.