At least 57 swimmers in the World Triathlon Championship Series in Sunderland, UK, have reported falling sick with symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting after competing in sea swimming events last weekend, according to a report by The Guardian.
The event saw around 2,000 athletes take part, including a swim off Sunderland’s prestigious blue flag Roker Beach.
Health officials from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have confirmed that they are investigating the outbreak to identify the cause of the illness and any common pathogens.
Environmental Agency Test Reveals Elevated E. Coli Levels
Before the event, on Wednesday, 26th July, an Environmental Agency sampling at Roker Beach showed alarming results, with 3,900 E. Coli colonies per 100ml of water. This level was over 39 times higher than the typical readings recorded the previous month. E. Coli is a bacterial infection known to cause stomach pain and bloody diarrhea.
British Triathlon Responds to Environmental Agency Results
Despite the concerning findings by the Environmental Agency, British Triathlon, the governing body for triathlons in Great Britain, stated that the sampling results were not made public until after the events and were taken from an area outside the designated competition zone. They asserted that their own testing had met the required standards for the event to proceed safely.
Controversy Surrounding Pollution Levels
Roker Beach and its surroundings have been at the center of a longstanding dispute between campaigners and Northumbrian Water over pollution. Campaigners have accused the water company of failing to comply with wastewater regulations and allowing excessive sewage discharges into the sea. However, Northumbrian Water insists that it is not responsible for the illnesses and maintains that no discharges affecting water quality at Roker Beach have occurred since October 2021.
Triathletes Speak Out
Top Australian triathlete Jake Birtwhistle took to Instagram to express his feelings, saying, “Have been feeling pretty rubbish since the race, but I guess that’s what you get when you swim in s***. I wasn’t feeling great in the individual race, so decided to save myself for a good relay leg. Some positives to take away leading into Paris in 2 weeks, but the swim should have been canceled.” Other athletes also shared their experiences, stating that they, too, fell ill after the event.
Investigation and Response
The UKHSA is actively investigating the outbreak and has urged anyone who participated in the event and experienced symptoms to contact the organizers for further investigation. They maintain that the risk to the wider public is minimal. British Triathlon is closely cooperating with Sunderland City Council and the UKHSA in their efforts to establish the cause of the illnesses.
Environmental Concerns and Water Quality
Water quality can be influenced by various factors, including sewage overflows operated by water companies and runoff from roads and fields. The issue of raw sewage being released into UK waters has been a matter of concern, with water companies facing criticism for their handling of such incidents. The release of untreated sewage and treated sewage spills has raised alarms among swimmers and beachgoers.