Potentially lethal levels of E coli found in River Thames ahead of Boat Race

Image above: Boat Racers told to avoid entering the water and cover any open wounds

Tests near Hammersmith Bridge found nearly ten times ‘safe’ levels of the sewage-related bacteria

Boat Race organisers have issued new safety guidance for those participating in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race on Saturday (30 March), after potentially lethal levels of E coli bacteria were found along the course on the River Thames.

Racers are advised not to enter the water and to cover any open wounds, lest they run the risk of coming into contact with the contaminated water flowing along the race’s route.

E Coli, which is found in faeces, 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.

Traditionally, the winners of the race often celebrate by jumping into the river. Last year Cambridge men’s cox Jasper Parish jumped into the Thames at Mortlake. But this winner’s tradition could become a thing of the past due to the deteriorating water quality in the river.

Instead, the Oxford and Cambridge crews will be encouraged to wash themselves down at a dedicated cleansing station once the race is over.

Between 28 February and 26 March, environmentalist group River Action conducted 16 tests on the Thames near Fulham Reach Boat Club around Hammersmith Bridge, which the crews will pass as they row between Putney and Chiswick.

The tests found an average of 2,863 E.coli bacteria colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml of water. To meet the Environment Agency’s bathing water quality standards, the level should be below 1,000 CFU per 100ml. The highest recorded measurement reached 9,801 CFU, nearly ten times the acceptable limit.

Image above: A sample of the E coli infested water taken along the River Thames near Hammersmith Bridge

‘Thames Water and the Conservative government’s inaction to blame’

River Action said the testing locations suggested the source of pollution is from Thames Water discharging sewage directly into the river and its tributaries.

It said this was based on publicly available data which showed that the water company had discharged sewage into the Greater London area of the River Thames for 1,914 hours from the start of 2024 up to 26 March.

The Boat Race said it supported the research carried out by River Action and confirmed that it would be implementing similar safety measures for the race on Saturday.

“Water quality is an ongoing concern for the Boat Race,” it said.

“We have put in place a series of precautionary measures this year to protect the health of our athletes, which includes guidance regarding the covering up of open wounds, regular handwashing, a cleansing station at the finish area and highlighting the risks of entering the water.

“We will also be taking on board British Rowing’s recent Poor Water Quality Guidance, issued in partnership with River Action, as we look forward to the Gemini Boat Race 2024.”

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Ruth Cadbury MP angrily Tweeted:

“So now everyone involved with @theboatrace know what so many who use the Thames and our other rivers [know already] – the river is full of s***after it rains. All thanks to the Conservative Govt failure to address the sewage treatment crisis”

Image above: Sewage along Strand-on-the-Green in November 2023

London Waterkeeper charity calls for legal limits on sewage dumping 

London Waterkeeper, which is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance which campaigns for safer, cleaner rivers, called on members of the public to email the Government with a legally-binding request to limit sewage spills.

The letter requests Defra (The Department for Environment & Rural Affairs), under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, to strengthen storm overflow permits by adding a threshold of 40 discharges per year. The letter requests that if Defra do not do this, to explain why and how this will align with the Government’s aim of “tightening” permits.

In a post on X, London Waterkeeper said:

“We want a threshold of 40 spills a year. More than that & the overflow is then classed as ‘unsatisfactory’. Currently there are no limits…

“We need the worst sewers highlighted to increase the pressure on water companies. The public would also know where they are. The fact that so many now have monitors needs to be reflected in the permits. The Government said it wants to ‘”tighten” permits, now is the time!”

According to publicly available data, by 26 March Thames Water had discharged sewage into the Greater London area of the River Thames for 1,914 hours since the start of 2024, equivalent to 79 days. The data comes from 40 storm overflow sites between Kingston and the mouth of the river in the east.

Above: Post from London Waterkeeper on X

River Action describes situation as “tragic”, Thames Water blames high rainfall, 

CEO of River Action James Wallace said,:

“We are in a tragic situation when elite athletes are issued with health guidance ahead of a historic race on the capital’s river. Our water quality results show what happens after decades of neglect by an unregulated water company, Thames Water.

“However, thanks to the vigilance of competition organisers, supported by British Rowing, River Action and The Rivers Trust, we are pleased they are showing their duty of care to the competing teams this weekend, and working with us to address the source of the problem: ending river pollution.

“For the safety of river users everywhere, rowers, communities and conservationists are uniting to ask the Government to enforce the law and to prosecute polluters. River Action wants water companies to honour their commitments to the regulators and bill payers by investing in their infrastructure and stop dumping sewage. Everyone should be able to enjoy our rivers and seas without risking their health.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said:

“Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us and we want to lead the way with our transparent approach to data. We remain the only company to provide live alerts for all untreated discharges and this ‘near real-time’ data is available to customers as a map on our website and is also available through an open data platform for third parties, such as swimming and environmental groups to use.

“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. The overflows are designed to operate automatically when the sewer network is about to be overwhelmed which then releases diluted wastewater into rivers, rather than letting it back up into people’s homes.

“We are working hard to make these discharges unnecessary and have published plans to upgrade over 250 of our sites, including a £100 million upgrade of our Mogden sewage treatment works in South West London to treat the high volumes of incoming sewage and reduce the need for overflows during wet weather.”