Report from Royal Academy of Engineering and IChemE urges wastewater infrastructure upgrades

Report from Royal Academy of Engineering and IChemE urges wastewater infrastructure upgrades

21st May 2024

Wastewater treatment must be improved to reduce exposure to human faecal pathogens in treated effluent, according to a new report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC), working in partnership with IChemE.

The report ‘Testing the waters: Priorities for mitigating health risks from wastewater pollution’ was compiled by a NEPC working group that included IChemE Fellow Dr Andrew Thompson, Head of UK Water at Fingleton White. IChemE Learned Society Committee member Amanda Lake, Europe Process Discipline head and Regional Wastewater Lead at Jacobs, was one of the report’s reviewers. Andrew Thompson also formed part of the working group panel who outlined the report’s findings to mainstream media via a press conference, and presented the report to key policymakers, alongside Professor Chris Whitty KCB, FRS, Chief Medical Officer for England.

Professor David Butler, Professor Chris Whitty, Professor Barbara Evans and Dr Andrew Thompson present the report to national media. Credit: Royal Academy of Engineering

This is the first time a comprehensive report has been undertaken to assess actions to mitigate public health risks associated with the use of public waters, contaminated by faecal matter from human waste. The report’s findings are based on risk-based assessments and consultations with more than 100 engineers, wastewater experts, the water industry, campaign organisations and policymakers, and it makes recommendations regarding engineering interventions to prioritise wastewater asset maintenance, with regulatory frameworks enforcing resilience.

Dr Andrew Thompson FIChemE, said: “With 43 engineering institutions represented in NEPC, as well as the many organisations who contributed to this report, our workshops allowed for a diverse range of opinions and comments to be freely expressed. I think hearing varied views from many different aspects and areas - often provoking some fascinating discussion - was immensely useful in informing and challenging our thinking prior to narrowing down to the more focused proposals and interventions contained in the report.

“Making a positive and important impact to the science of protecting public health is already at the forefront of many chemical and process engineering industry sectors, and our profession’s unique ability to take a systems thinking approach is crucial when - like with wastewater - there is no single solution on offer for all scenarios. In an era when the threat of pandemic is clear in people’s minds, continuing chemical engineering’s ambitious focus on preventing disease and promoting health and wellbeing must be a priority. Research data and new technologies will be key to delivering efficient and cost-effective results, in addition to ensuring that our future chemical engineering talent are equipped with the right skills and abilities to meet difficult challenges.”

A panel discussion with key policymakers

Professor David Butler FREng, Chair of the NEPC working group, commented: “Our vision for the UK’s future wastewater system is one that that ensures the right balance of human health, environmental protection and economic sustainability. But first we need a strong evidence base to understand and measure public health risks accurately. Such a foundation is essential to inform regulations, standards, and policies, enabling a united effort by governments, regulators, and water companies to mitigate health risks and ensure the safety of open waters for everyone.

“Growing urbanisation and forecasts for more frequent and intense rainfall events due to climate change will mean increasing pressure is put on our ageing wastewater system. Policymakers and industry should carefully consider the actions we have outlined here and their implications in future wastewater infrastructure projects.”

Report summary

Despite wastewater treatment works reducing the concentration of human faecal organisms, the continuous discharge of treated effluent into rivers, seas and lakes remains a source of high levels of these organisms. The report notes the rise in recreational activities in coastal and inland open waters across the UK, leading to greater public exposure to pollutants. Increased public awareness and data availability on water quality have spurred renewed scrutiny over UK water standards and necessitated a revaluation of the public acceptability of the risk.

The report acknowledges that there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate a direct, causal link between specific wastewater discharges and specific health incidents but emphasises the known public health risk from exposure to high concentrations of faecal organisms. It focuses on the role of wastewater infrastructure in introducing primarily human faecal organisms into open water through storm overflows and treated effluent discharge. However, it does not look at agricultural runoff from livestock, wild animals or septic tanks.

The working group examined a range of actions across storm water management, wastewater treatment, monitoring and communication with the public, and maintenance and operations. The actions proposed aim to either engineer a reduction in the hazard itself or minimise public exposure to it and the report emphasises that the choice of action will depend on local conditions, including scale, geography, policy priorities and affordability.

The report calls for collective action by industry, government, and public bodies to bolster a robust and efficient wastewater system and recommends the following actions:

Immediate Actions:

  • Asset maintenance: Water service providers must prioritise asset maintenance, with regulatory frameworks enforcing resilience.
  • Environmental monitoring: National and devolved governments should hasten environmental monitoring rollouts, with regulators overseeing microbiological quality to inform pollution forecasts and public advisories.
  • Bathing water review: A governmental review of bathing water regulations is necessary to ensure that protections are proportionate to the public health risk.
  • Overflow management: Storage tanks can collect storm water to prevent untreated wastewater spilling into waterways, however, these are an unsustainable short-term fix, and should only be used where environmental and public health risks are greatest.
  • Runoff reduction: Authorities must explore ways to decrease urban runoff, including incentives for removing impermeable surfaces, like patios or paved over gardens.
  • Collaborative modelling: Water companies should collaborate with researchers to model catchments for improved infrastructure management.
  • Public engagement: Health and environmental authorities need to educate the public about the public health risks and work together to and improve the effectiveness of signage at designated bathing sites.
  • Disinfection assessment: The need for disinfection processes at critical sites should be evaluated as part of a public health risk-based approach.

Long-Term Transformational Opportunities:

  • Visionary strategy: A government-led vision for the wastewater system should be established, incorporating diverse perspectives and setting measurable targets.
  • Sustainable drainage: A national strategy for sustainable drainage systems is essential to manage rainwater, reduce sewer inputs, and adapt to climate change.
  • Water efficiency strategy: The government is urged to reevaluate its water efficiency and blockage prevention strategy, potentially including a ban on non-flushable items, complemented by public engagement to foster responsible use of the water system.
  • Innovative treatment funding: Water service providers and regulators should allocate more funds for large-scale demonstrator programs to pioneer new treatment methods, enhancing performance, pollutant removal, and real-time faecal pathogen monitoring.

Enabling Actions for Future Readiness:

  • Research investment: UKRI and other funders are called upon to fund multidisciplinary research into faecal microbial behaviour and the development of advanced monitoring technologies for real-time detection in recreational waters.
  • Skill development: There is a need to expand regulatory and engineering expertise to implement these actions and manage water quality monitoring and enforcement.
  • Wastewater champion: The appointment of a dedicated wastewater champion is recommended to facilitate cross-stakeholder collaboration and information exchange, vital for enhancing the UK’s wastewater infrastructure.


National Engineering Policy Centre 

Testing the waters: Priorities for mitigating health risks from wastewater pollution

Learned Society Committee

Notes to editors

The report was developed by the Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, Institute of Water, Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Chemical Engineers and Institution of Mechanical Engineers, under the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC), led by a working group made up of the following experts: 

  • Professor David Butler FREng FICE FCIWEM Professor of Water Engineering, University of Exeter (Chair)
  • Professor Luiza Campos FICE Professor of Environmental Engineering, UCL
  • Philip Clisham FICE Technical Director, PClisham Consulting
  • Professor Barbara Evans MCIWEM Professor of Public Health Engineering, University of Leeds
  • Darren Hollins FIMechE Chief Mechanical Engineer, United Utilities
  • Professor Dragan Savić FREng FICE FCIWEM CEO, KWR Water Research Institute
  • Dr Andrew Singer Principal Scientist, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • Dr Heather Smith Senior Lecturer in Water Governance, Cranfield University
  • Dr Andrew Thompson FIChemE Head of UK Water, Fingleton White


For more information please contact:

Ann Baylis, Communications Executive and PR Lead, IChemE
t: +44 (0) 1788 534477

Dan Owens, Communications Executive, IChemE  
t: +44 (0) 1788 534458  

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