Sea swimmer urges better safety from sewage after bacteria caused fatal heart disease

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Suzi Finlayson used to regularly swim three days a week from her local beach in Aldwick with a group of friends who call themselves the Salty Souls. Now she can only look at her beautiful beach and cry, too frightened to venture back into a space which once gave her pleasure, community interaction, fitness, and well-being.

In December last year, Suzi, began to feel unwell. Normally fit and healthy, she couldn’t work out what the matter was.

After blood tests, she was admitted to Chichester’s St Richards hospital in early January with an infection caused by streptococcus that enter the body through the nose, mouth, or skin. Her condition worsened into bacterial endocarditis and two weeks later she was transferred to hospital in Brighton, where she underwent open heart surgery.

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Fitted with an artificial mitral valve, she spent a total of five weeks in hospital and is still recovering from the surgery.

Suzi and Jess on Aldwick Beach.Suzi and Jess on Aldwick Beach.
Suzi and Jess on Aldwick Beach.

It is only now that Suzi B, or BLove, as she is known, feels strong enough to tell her story. She hopes that experiences such as hers will help to galvanise action to make the sea safe for bathers once more.

“I and my fellow swimmers just want to know for sure when we can safely swim. When you live by the sea, it is soul destroying fearing it,” she said.

“Like many others I took up sea swimming during COVID and immediately discovered the huge benefits of cold-water swimming,” she said.

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Among the benefits proven to come from cold-water immersion and swimming are reduced inflammation, improved mental health, better skin, lower blood pressure, improvements to the nervous system and sleep, reduced stress, improved resilience and confidence and better fitness.

"Swimming in a group also provides social contact, a benefit that is being increasingly linked to better mental and physical health," said Suzi.

“It was only when I was recovering after surgery that I began to wonder how on earth I could have fallen so ill,” she said.

When she found out that another swimming friend of hers had also fallen sick, she began to suspect the cause of her illness was the sea itself, the one thing that she believed gave her strength, health, and happiness.

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She began to research what was happening with the sewage outfalls in the days, weeks and months before she began to feel unwell and realised how much sewage and wastewater spills straight into the sea.

Aldwick beach in Bognor Regis has four Combined Sewer Outfalls that discharge along the beach. For years the beach, popular with locals and tourists, was rated as having good water quality.

In 2022 ratings plummeted to Poor and just last week it was identified as one of the worst beaches in the UK for sewage spills.

In 2023 nearly 2,500 hours of wastewater had been pumped off Bognor Regis by October, even before one of the wettest winters on record was due to send thousands more hours of sewage contaminated wastewater into the sea.

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Sea water is tested for e-coli and other dangerous bacteria by Arun District Council only between May to September, even though year-round sea swimming on the south coast has been increasing for years.

As a professional mental health and wellbeing coach and alternative therapist, T.H.R.I.V.E with Suzi B, knows how important getting out into one’s local environment is. Unfortunately, Suzi has been too ill to fully return to work commitments and running her own business. She is determined to get back to work soon but she is saddened that she is too scared to get back into the sea, which she believes would speed up her recovery.

Although Suzi is desperate to campaign for better ways to ensure safe swimming, she has realised that it will be a long while before she can regain the energy to do this alone.

When Suzi wrote of her ordeal to Southern Water, the company replied with a standard letter informing her that it was working to improve the situation. It did not dispute the problem but did not have a solution that will enable Suzi and others, including her children, to feel confident about returning to the sea.

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Recent promises by the existing Conservative MPs for Bognor Regis and Chichester to hold the water companies to account feel similarly unconvincing as new regulation passed by the government on April 24 further reduces the ability of the water regulator, Ofwat, to penalise water companies for non-compliance.

So, at the suggestion of friends, Suzi decided to talk to Jess Brown-Fuller, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for the Chichester constituency, which now includes Pagham, the coastal village where Suzi lives. Jess has been campaigning hard for a radical restructuring of the water industry, to truly hold them to account for improvements to the way sewage is managed including ensuring adequate infrastructure is in place before new housing is allowed.

Suzi told Jess that she wants to encourage new approaches to the problem that recognise the importance of the coast for general well-being and the local economy.

“It is important that residents and visitors know exactly when it is safe for them to swim and for everyone to work harder to improve the situation,” she said, noting that visitors do not know where, or what, the Combined Sewer Outlets are and have no idea of the risks they face.

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“There is no doubt the amount of sewage being dumped in our rivers, harbours and seas has increased in recent years. This has happened for several reasons. Firstly, the government introduced new legislation that removed the restrictions on how much untreated sewage companies could spill, secondly resources have been cut for organisations such as the Environment Agency and Natural England to monitor what is going on, and, most recently, the government has reduced the ability for Ofwat to hold the water companies to account.

“On top of this, increasing and more intense rainfall and a huge amount of new housing being built in the coastal area, where the sewage system is already unable to cope, is resulting in more and longer spills of untreated wastewater and sewage being dumped into our rifes, harbours and sea,” added Jess.

Together, Jess and Suzi hope to find solutions to help make local swimmers and tourists regain trust in Bognor and Chichester’s coastal environment, which is so important for the physical, mental, and economic health of the area.

Ideas include better and more up-to-date signage to remind people to take caution about cuts to skin, swallowing water and to rinse off after swimming and wash hands.

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Other suggested improvements include warning flags at the beach, QR codes on signs linking to apps that clearly and simply describe current bathing conditions, more regular testing of the sea throughout the year, a centralised reporting data bank to allow rigorous monitoring of sickness after swimming, more ability for water companies to refuse new connections until infrastructure can cope, measurement of drainage capacity during wet periods rather than just reporting dry capacity in the system.