Sewage Protestors Hold a "Toilet Protest"

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Sewage Protestors Hold a "Toilet Protest"


By: Sion Touhig

Date: August 7, 2001

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken in Brighton, England, on August 7, 2001, during a protest by the group Surfers Against Sewage demonstrating against the discharge of untreated sewage into English coastal waters.


Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) is an environmental organization based in Brighton, England, that opposes the discharge of raw sewage into ocean waters. On August 7, 2001, the group staged a "sitting protest" against the fact that all sewage from the seaside resort city of Brighton, population 275,000, is pumped directly into the ocean without treatment. Twenty toilets were lined up on the sand and occupied by twenty protestors. One member of the group, Vicky Garner, said: "Whilst some may be questioning our sanity, we are simply creating an image that reflects reality in Brighton!… We thought we'd cut out the middle man, save Southern Water [the local water utility] the time and money and take our loos to the water's edge!" The surfers were joined on the beach by local Member of Parliament Des Turner, who spoke to the press about the legal and environmental need to treat Brighton's sewage before dumping it into the ocean.

Soon after its founding in 1990, SAS was dressing up in wet suits and gas masks and handing out fliers. In 1991, the group launched a ten foot inflatable "turd" bearing the name of the group, a pointed visual joke that drew media attention. SAS performed other stunts as well, including lobbying the British House of Commons in full regalia: wet suits, surfboards, and gas masks.

SAS, which started from a small group of fifty or so Brighton surfers angry at bumping into feces in the water, matured into a serious player in the drafting of water-quality standards. By 1999, SAS was contributing to the drafting of a World Health Organization protocol on recreational water quality. (The World Health Organization is a United Nations body.)

Progress toward full treatment of Britain's sewage has been slow and not entirely steady, but there have been advancements. In 1990, only 30 percent of bathing waters along designated swimming beaches in England and Wales met the European Union's strict guidelines for water cleanliness; by 2004, according to the British government, eighty percent did so, and ninty-nine percent met the EU's less-strict "mandatory" quality standards. Nevertheless, SAS still has plenty of work to do. The group argues that unseasonal rainfall due to climate change may increasingly cause unplanned sewage runoff. In August 2004, a delegation of male SAS surfers dressed in wet suits, high heels, wigs, and makeup—carrying surfboards, of course—protested outside the Department of the Environment office in London. They were calling attention to the discharge of pharmaceuticals and other bio-active ("gender-bending") substances into the rivers, lakes, and seas of the United Kingdom. Their official statement said, "Recreational water users, such as surfers, are now becoming increasingly concerned over the long-term effects a cocktail of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics may be having on their bodies when marine and freshwater wildlife are already showing such alarming changes."



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Like the environmental group Greenpeace, SAS uses humor to draw attention to facts that are not funny. Untreated sewage contains not only human waste but everything else that goes down any domestic or industrial drain: bleach, soaps, paints, solvents, heavy metals, and more. In 1997, a British study found that surfers were three times more likely than the general public to contract hepatatis A, presumably from exposure to contaminated water.

SAS has strongly advocated "full treatment" of sewage, as opposed to partial treatment followed by ocean dumping of effluent through long pipes that would supposedly not allow the material to wash back to shore. Full treatment involves bacterial digestion of waste, separation of solids, filtering, and (often) the use of ultraviolet light to kill microorganisms before the effluent is finally discharged. SAS also opposes dumping sludge solids produced by sewage treatment into the sea.

Since all human communities produce sewage, pollution of water by sewage is a global problem. Off the coast of California, would-be surfers often have the choice of ignoring beach closure signs or exposing themselves to sewage spills from the United States or Mexico or runoff from city streets. Short-term consequences of exposure to contaminated water include vomiting, diarrhea, and hepatitis A. In November 2004, also in the United States, the Surfrider Foundation brought a lawsuit against President George W. Bush, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other government entities for supporting the use of injection wells for the disposal of sewage in Florida. According to the Surfrider Foundation, studies show that instead of being filtered by underground rock the sewage simply squirts back up into the sea, contaminating some six hundred miles of coastal waters. In Bali, an island in the Indonesian archipelago that depends on tourism for 90 percent of its economy, raw sewage often contaminates some rivers and beaches, threatening not only aquatic life but the island's economic base. Money and the environment are at odds in this case, as usual: treating sewage is always more costly in dollars than simply dumping it into the nearest body of water.



Martin, Hugo. "Stay out of the water? No way." Los Angeles Times, (January 30, 2006): p. 1.

Web sites

Surfers Against Sewage. 〈〉 (accessed March 10, 2006).

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Sewage Protestors Hold a "Toilet Protest"

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