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A bit of a stink in the River Lea

Chemical discharge into the Old River Lea: July 2009, &copy: Martin SlavinChemical discharge into the Old River Lea: July 2009, ©: Martin Slavin
On 25th of February 2010 the Hackney Gazette reported; “More than 500 people in the north-east of [London], ...including many from Hackney, [have complained]..that their water smells of faecal matter.” A week earlier it reported that one resident said, “The water smells like faecal material. If you taste it you want to spit it out.” Another complained of the water having, “an incredibly strong, acrid chemical, sour milk or sewage smell"..

The Hackney Gazette said Thames Water had; “identified traces of two chemicals in supplies 2-EDD and 2-EMD which are often associated with the manufacturing of adhesives. If the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) finds evidence that Thames Water failed to properly detect the contamined water and prevent it from reaching homes, it could be fined up to £20,000 per charge at magistrates court....

Water that contains trace elements of 2-EDD and 2-EMD can cause people who drink it to experience diarrhoea, nausea, headaches, skin irritation and itchy eyes....

However, the company's director of operational management, Bob Collington, said: “Although the levels found in water from our Walthamstow water treament works have been enough for a small number of customers to notice and report an unusual smell, based on all the information we have seen to date we have no reason to believe that there is a significant risk to public health...

Thames Water has stopped drawing supplies from the Lea and is providing the affected areas with water from the Thames.”

See more at: ,Company faces rap after chemicals are discovered in stinking tap water, page 6, Hackney Gazette,, 25 Feb 2010

One curious aspect of these reports is that although these two chemicals have been found in this sewage smelling water they do not smell like faecal material.

They are reported in two papers*, published in 'Water Science Technology' in 1999, as being by-products of resin manufacturing processes. They had previously been the cause of four odour episodes in drinking water in America and Spain. Apparently 2-EDD smells sweet (tutti-frutti) and 2-EMD smells sweet (medicinal). The paper on 'The formation, stability and odor characterization of 2-EMD' states that; "In raw water sources it can persist and pass unabated through typical biological waste treatment facilities and drinking water treatment facilities which includes unit operations such as activated sludge treatment, coagulation and chlorination."

*Download PDFs of the papers from: 2-EDD and 2-EMD

Which is where the photo above comes into the story. A number of local people, including myself, have over the last year noticed a distinct smell coming from the frequent milky discharge from a culvert next to the bridge over the Old River Lea at Ruckholt Road. ( The culvert is located in the top corner between the river and the new bridge which takes the southbound traffic on the A106)

The smell is that of a volatile solvent combined with a smell somewhat like surgical spirit. I know that smell is notoriously difficult to describe and match from memory but the smell of the discharge from the culvert seems a lot closer to that reported from 2-EMD and quite different from that of faecal matter or sewage.

Myself and others reported the discharge pictured above to the Environment Agency. Feedback from them amounted to; 'we know about that. Its very difficult to trace back to its origins so there is nothing we can do about it.'

Another interesting aspect of this story arises from Thames Water ceasing to draw drinking water supplies from the river Lea as result of the stinking water contamination. We know that water extraction accounts for a considerable proportion of the flow volume of the Lea. This happens to coincide with the current period of high rainfall around the spring tides. It will be interesting to observe what difference this combination of circumstances makes to the water levels in the Old River Lea section from Hackney Marshes down to Prescott Lock in Bow.


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