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Oxford-Cambridge boat racers warned of "alarmingly high" E. coli levels in London's sewage-infused Thames

The Thames River in London has been home to the historic race between men's rowing teams from Cambridge and Oxford for decades
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The famous Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, which takes place every year on the River Thames, was expected to go ahead this weekend despite warnings about "alarmingly high" levels of E. coli bacteria in the water.

The environmental group River Action said Wednesday that it had regularly tested the section of the Thames where the race takes place between February 28 and March 26 and found E. coli levels up to 10 times higher than what U.K. environmental authorities consider the worst category for public bathing. Even at the worst rating, far lower than what was found in the Thames, authorities warn against exposure.

"The testing locations suggest that the source of pollution is from Thames Water discharging sewage directly into the river and its tributaries," River Action said in a statement.

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Long Reach sewage treatment works, operated by Thames Water Ltd., on the banks of the River Thames, in London, UK, on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Bloomberg

The group said it had worked with the organizers of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race to create guidelines for rowing in polluted waters, which include tips such as covering cuts and blisters with waterproof dressings and making sure not to swallow river water that may splash close to the mouth.

"We are in a tragic situation when elite athletes are issued with health guidance ahead of a historic race on the capital's river," River Action CEO James Wallace said in a statement. "Our water quality results show what happens after decades of neglect by an unregulated water company, Thames Water."

Thames Water, a regional U.K. utility company, is embroiled in controversy over environmental pollution and its business tactics. It has blamed exceptionally high rainfall for the high pollution readings, the Financial Times newspaper reported.

But earlier this week, the U.K.'s Environmental Agency said the number of discharges of raw sewage into rivers in England and Wales had rocketed 54% in 2023 compared to the previous year, with a record-breaking 464,056 spills, according to the FT.

The Oxford-Cambridge boat race began in 1829 and attracts around 250,000 spectators to the banks of the Thames each year.

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