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At least 57 athletes fall seriously ill following world triathlon championship: 'The swim should have been cancelled'

"The team will undertake an investigation of cases."

Roker Beach in Sunderland, England

Photo Credit: iStock

At least 57 athletes competing at the World Triathlon Championship Series in Sunderland, England, became sick after swimming in polluted waters.

What's happening?

Roughly 2,000 athletes competed in the World Triathlon Championship Series, including a swim off Roker Beach in Sunderland, England. 

Three days before the event, samples from the UK Environment Agency revealed 3,900 E. coli colonies per 100ml of water, 39 times higher than readings taken a month earlier. E. coli can cause a stomach infection with symptoms including stomach pain, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. 

After the events, a number of athletes said they had become sick. Jacob Birtwhistle, an Australian triathlete, posted the Environment Agency's results on Instagram and wrote, "Have been feeling pretty rubbish since the race … The swim should have been cancelled."

Other athletes who'd become sick shared their experiences in the comments. "At least I know what got me and a bunch of other athletes who raced sick and ill," one wrote. 

British Triathlon, the governing body responsible for the event, pointed out that these findings weren't published until after the weekend's events had taken place. It said it conducted its own tests of the waters prior to the competition, which passed the required standards.

Why is this concerning?

The events took place along a stretch of coastline where the government and local campaigners have clashed over sewage discharges in the water. 

Though Northumbrian Water, a water services and sewage company, insists it hasn't detected any sewage discharges that would have affected the water quality at Roker Beach since October 2021, data published by the Rivers Trust shows that a sewer discharged near Roker Beach for a total of 370 hours in 2022. Northumbrian Water said these discharges wouldn't have affected water quality at Roker Beach.

Waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid, and E. coli infections are responsible for 3.4 million deaths every year. As temperatures rise, the risk of contracting these diseases will only increase. Studies have shown that higher temperatures correspond to more cases of E. coli infection.

What's being done about the illnesses?

The UK Health Security Agency plans on testing samples from those who have became sick to determine the cause of the illness.

The agency said, "The 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." 

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