Rowers in England’s university Boat Race warned over E.coli levels in the Thames


Jumping into London’s River Thames has been the customary celebration for members of the winning crew in the Boat Race, the nearly 200-year-old rowing contest between storied English universities Oxford and Cambridge.

Now it comes with a health warning.

Testing by the River Action campaign group found high levels of E.coli along a stretch of the Thames in southwest London that will be used for the historic race taking place on Saturday.

E.coli bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most strains are harmless, cause relatively brief diarrhea and most people recover without much incident, according to the Mayo clinic. But small doses of some strains — including just a mouthful of contaminated water — can cause a range of conditions, including urinary tract infection, cystitis, intestinal infection and vomiting, with the worst cases leading to life-threatening blood poisoning.

The teams from both competing universities have been given a briefing pack with guidance, issued by River Action among others, on the importance of covering cuts, grazes and blisters with waterproof dressings, taking care not to swallow river water that splashes close to the mouth, wearing suitable footwear when launching or recovering a boat, and cleaning all equipment thoroughly.

In a statement to the Guardian newspaper, organizers have said they support the research carried out by River Action and added that precautionary measures for this year’s race include “highlighting the risks of entering the water” and the use of a “cleansing station at the finish area.”

The race between the universities first took place in 1829 and is one of the oldest sporting events in the world, typically attracting 270,000 spectators along the 4.2-mile (6.8-kilometer) stretch of the Thames.

River Action said it conducted 16 tests around the Hammersmith Bridge on the Thames from Feb. 28-March 26, using a World Health Organization-verified E.coli analyzer.

Test results indicated an average of 2,863 E.coli colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml of water, the group said. The highest recorded spike reached 9,801 CFU, it added.

River Action said that, according to the Environment Agency, it is unsafe to swim in an inland water registering 1,000 CFU or higher.

The group didn’t say which of the many strains of E.coli it found.

“As a rower, the water I row on is my field of play, and the results of the E.coli testing show that rowers are putting their health at risk to do the sport they love,” said Imogen Grant, a world champion rower who won the Boat Race with Cambridge three times. “More needs to be done to improve our water quality across the country, and testing like this gives us a picture of just how far we have to go.”

River Action said the testing locations suggested the source of pollution was from utility company Thames Water discharging sewage directly into the river and its tributaries. Thames Water said improving the health of rivers was one of its key focuses and that it was working hard to reduce unnecessary discharges.


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