Oxford-Cambridge boat race rowers warned to avoid water after E. coli find as Britain’s pollution crisis grows

Concern is growing over levels of sewage pollution in London’s River Thames after E. coli bacteria was discovered ahead of this weekend’s historic Oxford v. Cambridge boat race.

Rowers taking part in the contest are being told to avoid direct contact with the water due to “alarmingly high levels” of the bacteria, which can cause a range of infections.

The annual boat race, which involves teams from the historic British universities, has been held since 1829 and draws crowds of hundreds of thousands to the banks of the Thames in west London. Winners often celebrate by jumping into the river, but new guidance calls into question the safety of the tradition as worries increase about the dumping of raw sewage into rivers and seas around the United Kingdom.

Water quality testing at 16 sites near Hammersmith Bridge, roughly halfway along Saturday’s 4.2-mile route, found high levels of “dangerous” E. coli bacteria, according to campaign group River Action who carried out the examination.

The recent testing found an average of 2,863 E.coli colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml (three fluid ounces) of water, rising to 9,801 CFU in the highest reading. To meet the UK Environment Agency’s inland bathing water quality standards, E. coli levels should be below 1,000 CFU per 100ml.

Sean Bowden, Oxford University’s rowing coach, said he was worried about the pollution. “It’s a concern,” he told Thursday’s Telegraph newspaper. “And I’m really glad the papers are pursuing the water companies on it. I am right with them. It’s a national disgrace, isn’t it?

“It would be terrific if the Boat Race drew attention to it. We are very keen to play a part and we recognize we have a role and a responsibility to it,” he added.

E. coli can cause a wide range of health issues, including intestinal, urinary tract and bladder infections, alongside other symptoms such as stomach cramps and vomiting. Some strains of E.coli can even lead to life-threatening sepsis.

“We are in a tragic situation when elite athletes are issued with health guidance ahead of a historic race on the capital’s river,” River Action’s CEO James Wallace said in a statement. “Everyone should be able to enjoy our rivers and seas without risking their health.”

The new guidance, issued by British Rowing, River Action and The Rivers Trust, advises rowers to cover all open cuts and avoid direct contact with the water when launching or recovering a boat from the river.

It also adds that rowers should refer themselves to a healthcare professional if they accidentally swallow river water. The guidance has been issued to both universities in briefing packs ahead of this weekend’s race, River Action said.

The Oxford boat sinks after only half a mile, during the annual University boat race against Cambridge on March 24, 1951. - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Oxford boat sinks after only half a mile, during the annual University boat race against Cambridge on March 24, 1951. - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The health warnings come as figures from the UK Environment Agency highlighted record-breaking frequency of sewage spills by privatized water companies across England last year. Sewage was dumped into rivers and seas across the country for 3.6 million hours in 2023, more than double the previous year, according to the latest data.

The water company blamed for discharging sewage into the Thames stressed that E. coli was a naturally occurring organism and likely to be present in floodwater. A Thames Water spokesman said: “We have experienced higher than average long-term rainfall across London and the Thames Valley, with groundwater levels exceptionally high for the time of the year.”

Feargal Sharkey, a water campaigner and former singer of The Undertones, told the BBC this was “yet again another complete and utter shambles,” adding that the UK government had “lost control” of the water industry.

Other environmental campaigners agreed. “Scandalous inaction by water companies has pushed our ecosystems to the brink and is putting our health at risk,” Sienna Somers, a nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said.

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