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All the unpleasant information about sewage fungus that you never wanted to know.
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All the unpleasant information about sewage fungus that you never wanted to know.

What does sewage fungus refer to?

The river’s dark, foul-smelling, brown appearance is disheartening for those who enjoy it and those who fish in it.

It may be beneficial to know that the organism commonly referred to as sewage fungus due to its appearance of fungal filaments is not actually a fungus. Instead, it is primarily composed of various bacteria species, including Sphaerotilus natans, Beggiatoa alba, Carchesium polypinum, and Flexibacter species. As it grows and develops its slimy, floating fronds, it may also contain some fungi and algae. However, its presence is typically a negative sign for the river it is found in and any animals living there.

Where can it be located and what is its origin?

The growth of sewage fungus is promoted in water bodies that are contaminated with excessive amounts of nutrients and organic materials.

Sewage discharges are a common source of this kind of pollution, but these microorganisms can also be carried into waterways from animal slurry and even from effluent from paper mills. Last month, a Devon farmer was fined £6,000 for polluting a stream with slurry, with thick sewage fungus visible for more than a mile downstream, the Environment Agency reported. A study by Oxford University found that sewage pollution, whether treated or untreated, was the primary reason for increased sewage fungus in rivers.

Is it dangerous?

Sewage fungus has the potential to decrease the amount of oxygen in water, leading to suffocation of aquatic creatures. This can have a detrimental effect on fish eggs, preventing them from hatching. In serious situations, waterways may not be able to sustain invertebrates as a consequence. The presence of this fungus has been linked to widespread fish mortality in affected water sources, which in turn can disrupt the entire food chain. Even after removing the sewage fungus, its impact on the overall health of the river can be long-lasting and it may take a considerable amount of time for the river’s ecosystem to fully recover.

Brown sewage fungusView image in fullscreen

Can it be harmful to human health? According to Dr. Anne Jungblut, a microbiome specialist at the Natural History Museum, it is a type of mold that may contain human pathogens. She compares its level of danger to that of debris found in a kitchen sink drain, which would not be safe to consume. The presence of this mold in a river could indicate sewage contamination, potentially containing dangerous bacteria like E. coli. Therefore, swimming in such a river would not be recommended.

Sewage fungus has become a problem in some of the most treasured landscapes in the UK. This issue has been observed in Lake Windermere and the scenic River Wye, as well as on a public pathway in Surrey due to sewage overflow from a Thames Water treatment facility.

Is the situation deteriorating?

As the number of sewage releases increases, the likelihood of an increase in sewage fungus also rises. In the year 2022, a total of 389,165 sewage spills were documented in the UK, resulting in a significant 2.4 million hours of discharge.

Dr. Michelle Jackson, from the University of Oxford, found in her study that sewage pollution has a greater impact on rivers than agricultural runoff. However, due to a lack of research in this area, it is difficult to determine if the situation is improving. She also notes that water companies only rely on a basic visual inspection to report outbreaks downstream of treatment facilities.

A study conducted by the Rivers Trust, involving citizen participation, recorded 322 occurrences of sewage fungus in rivers throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. This accounts for 9% of all surveys conducted. According to the Environment Agency, river health has shown improvement since the Industrial Revolution; however, this standard is not particularly high and newer pollutants are taking the place of those from outdated industries. Additionally, with a rising population, inadequate investment in obsolete infrastructure, and the effects of climate change, the wastewater system is facing increased strain. It is evident that changes must be made in order to restore the health of rivers and the wildlife that depends on them.

What methods can be used to address sewage fungus?

If water quality does not improve, there will be a rise in outbreaks. In order to more effectively track sewage fungus, Oxford University has created an AI program that can identify the bacteria’s growth before it becomes visible. This technique involves using imaging methods and machine learning to detect sewage particles and sewage fungus in water samples. According to the scientists, this could serve as an early warning system for identifying harmful outbreaks, functioning as a “canary in the coal mine” to prevent pollution buildup and stop the decline of species.

Co-author of the study, Dr. Dania Albini, believes that it is essential to make advancements in wastewater treatment facilities and implement stricter regulations. In her words, “These measures are critical in protecting the health and security of our rivers, which are vital for both ecosystems and human well-being.” This statement was made upon the release of the report at the end of last year.

Until steps are taken to address the issue of sewage discharge, individuals may need to become accustomed to seeing the persistent fungus and its slimy strands in the waterways of the UK.

Source: theguardian.com