The Boat Race 2024: E.coli outbreak leads to safety advice from organisers

The Oxford crew in action in the men's race (PA)
The Oxford crew in action in the men's race (PA)

Crews for this weekend’s Boat Race have been warned against jumping in the water and to cover any open wounds, after high levels of E.coli were found in a stretch of the Thames.

Organisers have issued new safety guidelines, which could yet mean the traditional celebration by some winning crews will be a thing of the past.

Tests by River Action found an average of 2,869 E.coli-colony-forming units per 100ml of water. The Environment Agency’s guidance is that this should be below 1,000 for safe bathing water. River Action said the likely cause was Thames Water discharging sewage directly into the river and its tributaries.

Despite the safety fears, Saturday’s men’s and women’s races have been given the go-ahead.

But River Action chief executive 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. Everyone should be able to enjoy our rivers and seas without risking their health.”

A statement from race organisers said: “We have put in place a series of precautionary measures this year to protect the health of our athletes.”

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.

"We have experienced higher than average long-term rainfall across London and the Thames Valley with groundwater levels exceptionally high for the time of year. The overflows are designed to operate automatically when the sewer network is about to be overwhelmed which then releases diluted waste water into rivers rather than letting it back up into people's homes.

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