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TV quiz show host questions river health ahead of Oxford Eights and Clean Rivers Festival

TV quiz show host Alexander Armstrong this week teamed up with River Action to conduct water quality testing on the River Thames.

The talented comedian and broadcaster, known to many for his work on BBC’s Pointless, tried his hand at water quality testing to mark the start of this weekend’s four-day Oxford eights rowing regatta and the city’s Clean Rivers Festival.

Mr Armstrong said, “There are few things that upset and infuriate me more than our seeming inability to do anything to improve our benighted waterways. It’s the most shameful failure of our age. Thank goodness the clamour is being raised but when will meaningful action be taken? We must none of us stop clamouring until it is.”

To help inform and keep rowers safer in the water at this year’s Oxford Eights, River Action, Earthwatch and local community members conducted regular water testing on the stretch of the river used for the regatta. This took place between 1st May and 17th.

Using a World Health Organization verified E.Coli analyser, the test results showed that on average the water contained 340 E.Coli colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml of water. This peaked at 952 CFU, which is over the level the Environment Agency grades designated bathing waters as poor, the bottom of four categories. When bathing water is graded ‘poor’ the Government’s advice is against bathing.

Chloe Peck from River Action said, “These are not the most alarming readings we have ever taken but they do still show levels of E.coli in the water indicating that the river is not healthy and may not be safe to swim in. It is important to remember that river pollution ebbs and flows and ideally, we would monitor water quality throughout the year to help river users keep safe and track river health.

“For the safety of river users everywhere, rowers, communities and conservationists are uniting to ask the Government to enforce the law and to prosecute polluters. River Action wants water companies to honour their commitments to the regulators and bill payers by investing in their infrastructure and stop dumping sewage. Everyone should be able to enjoy our rivers and seas without risking their health, but we fear that without urgent action someone could get seriously ill or even die.”

‘Guidance on rowing when water quality is poor’

Rowers spend a huge amount of their daily lives either on or by the water. British Rowing, River Action and The Rivers Trust developed a set of guidelines for rowing on poor quality water – first used to keep rowers safer during this year’s Gemini Boat race between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The guidance was issued when River Action revealed alarmingly high levels of dangerous E.coli bacteria from sewage pollution along the stretch of the River Thames used for the race. Sadly, despite the warnings, guidance and precautions taken by rowers, some of them still got sick.

‘Guidance on rowing when water quality is poor’ has been written to minimise the risk of contracting illness due to proximity to polluted water. 

Included are helpful tips on the importance of covering cuts, grazes, and blisters with waterproof dressings, taking care not to swallow river water that splashes close to the mouth, wearing suitable footwear when launching or recovering a boat, and cleaning all equipment thoroughly.

Ms Peck said, “Guidance can be issued but ultimately river users are having to take a risk. To help keep them safer we need greater monitoring of rivers for pathogens and a duty of care from water companies and the government issuing health warnings, not only for designated bathing sites but also major events and other popular bathing hotspots.”


For interviews call Ian Woolverton on 07377 547 362 or email

Between 1st May and 17th May, River Action conducted testing (10 tests in total) on the River Thames near to the Christ Church Boat Club, Oxford. Tests results indicate an average of 340 E.coli colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml of water. To meet the lowest grade of bathing water quality standards, this level should be below 900 CFU per 100ml. Our highest recorded spike reached 952 CFU, over the level the Environment Agency considers acceptable for designated bathing waters graded poor, the bottom of four categories. When bathing water is graded ‘poor’ the Government’s advice is against bathing. By comparison, the Environment Agency conducts between 3 and 20 water quality tests of bathing water sites between May and September to decide the status. According to the Environment Agency, an inland water registering 900 CFU or greater is unsafe to swim. 

The E.coli bacterium is found in faeces and can survive in the environment. It can cause a range of infections including urinary tract infection, cystitis (infection of the bladder), and intestinal infection, stomach cramps, bloody diarrhoea, and vomiting. In the worst of cases, some strains of E.coli can lead to life-threatening sepsis (blood poisoning) requiring urgent medical attention.

Oxford Clean Rivers Festival will take place on Saturday, May 25th, at the picturesque Longbridges Nature Park adjacent to the Thames, a mile south of the centre of Oxford. The Festival will have a family fun atmosphere with music, entertainment, and engaging talks from both national and local speakers. The festival centres around the state of our rivers, prompting participants to pledge their commitment to the restoration of these vital natural resources. The event will run from 12pm – 5pm and promises to be both educational and entertaining, offering attendees the opportunity to learn more about our wonderful river and how they can play a role in its restoration

River Action conducts citizen science on waterways to determine whether there are pathogens present harmful to the health of humans and wildlife. We are on a mission to rescue Britain’s rivers by raising awareness of the crisis facing our rivers, and the failure of Government funded environmental agencies to make water companies invest in their polluting infrastructure and to prosecute illegal business practices that cause river pollution.