More than 50 triathletes have become ill with symptoms including diarrhoea and vomiting after participating in swimming competitions off the coast of Sunderland, according to health officials. The UK leg of the World Triathlon Championship series took place in Sunderland last weekend, with about 2,000 people participating and including a swim off the city’s Roker beach. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) stated that it would send affected individuals a questionnaire and request a sample for testing in order to identify the cause of the illness. The agency also reassured the public that the risk was very low.
In late July, the Environment Agency conducted sampling tests at the beach and found that the water had 39 times the usual amount of e-coli bacteria. E-coli is a bacterial infection that can lead to stomach pain and bloody diarrhoea. Australian triathlete Jake Birthwistle, who competed in the event, posted the Environment Agency’s results on Instagram and disclosed that he had felt unwell afterwards. He expressed his disappointment that the swimming portion of the triathlon had not been cancelled due to the contamination. Other participants also reported experiencing illness after taking part in the event.
The section of coastline where the swimming competition took place has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between campaigners and the government regarding sewage discharges. However, Northumbrian Water, the water utility company, stated that no sewage discharges have occurred at the beach since 2021. The Environment Agency emphasized that it regularly monitors bathing waters, including at Roker beach, and works to improve water quality. It also noted that temporary declines in water quality can be caused by factors such as heavy rain. The beaches at Roker and Seaburn were classified as “excellent” based on sampling conducted over the past four summers.
British Triathlon, the governing body for triathlons in the UK, stated that the Environment Agency’s sampling results were not released until after the weekend’s events and that the competition took place in a different area of water. The organization confirmed that its own testing results met the required standards for the event. The UKHSA’s North East health protection team is collaborating with British Triathlon and Sunderland City Council to investigate the reports of illness and ensure that participants are informed and receive appropriate medical advice.
This incident highlights the importance of maintaining water quality in recreational areas, especially for sporting events that involve contact with water. It also underscores the need for effective monitoring and communication between relevant authorities to prevent such incidents and protect the health and safety of participants and the public.