The activities last weekend included swimming off Sunderland’s blue flag Roker beach, which drew almost 2,000 participants. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced that it would examine samples from the sick in order to identify the illness’s root cause and any widespread viruses.
Three days before to the event, on Wednesday, July 26, an Environment Agency sampling at Roker Beach revealed 3,900 E Coli colonies per 100 ml, which is more than 39 times higher than average readings from the previous month. A bacterial infection called E coli can result in stomach pain and bloody diarrhoea.
But British Triathlon, the governing body for triathlons in Great Britain, said the agency’s sampling results were not published until after the weekend’s events and were outside the body of the water where its competitions took place. It said its own testing results passed the required standards for the event.
The rally took place along a section of beachfront that has long been the focus of a conflict between activists and the government over sewage discharges and regulatory shortcomings.
Northumbrian Water argued that it was not to blame for the illnesses and that, since October 2021, there had been no discharges that may have possibly impacted the water quality at Roker Beach.
Australian triathlete Jacob Birtwhistle, 28, uploaded the Environment Agency’s results on Instagram and claimed to have felt sick after the competition. Have felt fairly lousy since the race, but I suppose that’s what happens when you swim in shit, he wrote. The swim ought to have been called off.
One athlete responded: “At least I know what got me and a bunch of other athletes who raced sick and ill.” Another wrote: “That now explains why I spent Monday night with my head in the toilet after racing Sunday morning!”
Ailith Eve Harley-Roberts, 51, from Leeds, who competed in the standard category with a 1,500-metre sea swim, said she had not fallen ill but fellow competitors suffered stomach upsets. She said: “I like to swim outdoors but don’t have any confidence in the cleanliness of seas, rivers, lakes etc because of the dumping of sewage or other effluents.”
“The sample taken on July 26 showed unprecedented levels of E coli well over what is natural for this water body or safe for human recreational use,” said Eva Perrin, scientific and research officer for the advocacy organisation Surfers Against Sewage. “This situation urgently needs to be investigated.”
Campaigner Bob Latimer, 79, spent years suing the government over sewage flows off Whitburn, which is located north of Roker beach. The Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the regulator Ofwat received a pre-action letter on his behalf in June for a proposed judicial review, alleging that there were 122 discharges from the Whitburn sea outfall in 2021 alone, totaling 821,088 tonnes of sewage and storm water.
Latimer says the sewage discharges from the Whitburn outfall increased between 2017 and 2021, and there has been a failure by the government to comply with waste water regulations. He said: “There is still too much sewage being discharged into the sea.”
Data published by the charity the Rivers Trust based on returns from water firms shows a sewer storm overflow discharged into the Wear Estuary, near the triathlon event, 28 times in 2022 for a total of 370 hours. Northumbrian Water said these sewage discharges would not affect Roker beach because they were “intercepted” and discharged by a long-sea outfall.
The triathlon event at Sunderland was the British leg of the World Triathlon Championship Series, and took place within the qualification window for the Paris 2024 Olympic games. There were also participation races in a variety of distances, including a family event. It was the first time Sunderland had hosted the UK leg of the series.
British Triathlon said it was working closely with Sunderland city council and the UKHSA to establish the cause of the illnesses. Environment Agency officials say its sampling on 26 July was not published until 31 July because it required a laboratory analysis.
The UKHSA said: “UKHSA is working with British Triathlon to encourage anyone who participated and has or had symptoms after the event to contact the organisers who will then pass details onto the UKHSA North East Protection team. The team will undertake an investigation of cases.”
There are various factors that can affect water quality, including the use of sewage overflows operated by water firms, as well as run-off from roads and fields. Northumbrian Water said it did not consider any of its infrastructure was involved in any pollution incidents that could have affected the triathlon events.
A spokesperson for Northumbrian Water said: “We have had no discharges from any of our assets that might negatively impact water quality at either Roker or the neighbouring Whitburn North bathing water since October 2021.
“Both bathing waters were designated as ‘Excellent’ in the latest Defra classifications, and sampling to date in the current season indicate this high quality is being maintained.”