Contaminated Waters: The Unseen Challenge Facing Boat Race 2024 Rowers

Boat Race 2024 is being held between Cambridge and Oxford in London and many rowers are taking part in it. But they are told not to go inside the Thames river because of the high levels of E. coli found in it.

Additionally, crew members have been advised to wear shoes and protection against blisters when entering and exiting the boat.

According to the pressure group River Action study, the bacteria were from sewage dumped straight into the river. Enhancing the health of waterways was a “key focus” for Thames Water.

On Saturday afternoon, rowers from Oxford and Cambridge universities will participate in the renowned 4.25-mile Championship Course on the Thames for the 169th men’s and 78th women’s races.

James Wallace, CEO of River Action, added a statement: 

It is a dreadful scenario when elite athletes are given health advice before a historic race on the nation’s river. Our water quality results show what happens after decades of neglect by an unregulated water company, Thames Water.

The faeces contain E. Coli bacteria. This may cause illnesses like intestinal infections, vomiting, cystitis, and urinary tract infections. In the worst cases, it can cause fatal blood poisoning.

River Action, British Rowing, and The Rivers Trust are requesting a lot. They say the government should hold polluters accountable and enforce the law.

Both institutions’ Boat Race briefing packets now contain updated advice to rowing clubs regarding safety in contaminated waterways.

The river water was tested between February 28 and March 26, using an E. Coli analyser validated by the World Health Organization.

The 16 tests in the west London area near Hammersmith Bridge showed an average of 2,869 E. Coli colony-forming units (CFU) per 100 millilitres of water. To comply with the Environment Agency’s inland bathing water quality criteria, the level should be less than 1,000 CFU per 100ml.

River Action reported that the maximum concentration was 9,801 CFU per 100ml, almost ten times greater than in bathing waters rated as “poor” by the Environment Agency.

This is supported by data readily available to the public, which demonstrates that between the beginning of 2024 and March 26, the water corporation released sewage into the River Thames in the Greater London area during 1,914 hours.

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Furthermore, According to the organisers, the universities participating in the Boat Race “love” rowing on the Thames, but water quality is a “continuing concern.”

Few places on the water can test rowers’ technical prowess and tenacity like the Tideway. We hold briefings with the universities and athletes to guarantee their safety when rowing on the Tideway, as water quality is a constant worry for the Boat Race. We regularly consult with our extensive network of rowing clubs on health and safety guidelines, and we have implemented a series of precautionary measures this year to protect the health of our athletes.

They further stated;

This includes guidance regarding covering open wounds, regular handwashing, a cleansing station at the finish area and highlighting the risks of entering the water. We have experienced higher than average long-term rainfall across London and the Thames Valley with exceptionally high groundwater levels for the time of year.

When there is a risk of overflow into the sewer network, the overflows are meant to function automatically. Instead of allowing it to seep back into people’s houses, this discharges diluted wastewater into rivers. We are working hard to make these discharges unnecessary and have published plans to upgrade over 250 of our sites.