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Are Rio de Janeiro's Waters Safe Enough for the 2016 Summer Olympics?

Independent testing has found the water at some Brazilian Olympic venues could be considered hazardous.
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With a year to go before the summer Olympics begin, athletes took to the waters of Rio de Janeiro this weekend — in spite of growing concerns about the water they are sailing, rowing, canoeing and swimming in.

The Associated Press reported last week that independent testing, spanning five months, found the water venues that 1,400 athletes will compete in have high levels of bacteria and viruses that some experts say pose a potential health hazard.

One Olympic site where rowing and canoeing will take place, Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, had 1.7 billion adenoviruses — which can cause diarrhea, vomiting and a host of other illnesses — per liter.

That’s 1.7 million times the viral count that would be considered hazardous at a Southern California beach, the AP reported.

Guanabara Bay, another site, where sailing competitions will take place, is flooded with nearly 400 tons of garbage each day, biologist and environmental activist Mario Moscatelli, told NBC News.

Mario Andrada, the Executive Director for Communications Engagement for the Rio 2016 Games, said the committee’s “main priority is to guarantee the health, safety and welfare of the athletes.”

Andrada said the aim is to treat 80 percent of the sewage flowing into the bay by the start of the Olympics, but admits it’s “a complicated goal.”

“The fact that there is a lot of pressure around the bay is good enough because this mobilized society, mobilized the government and kept us focused on a goal to clean the bay. … That’s the legacy from the games,” Andrada said.

Attention hasn’t only been cast on the Guanabara Bay though.

The waters off Copacabana Beach, which is one of the least contaminated Olympic sites, according to the AP testing, still has concentrations of viruses that are akin to those found in raw sewage. The famous beach will not only be the site for open-water swimming events, but will also be visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking to Rio for the games.

Related: Will Rio Be Ready? Countdown Begins to 2016 Summer Games

Last week, the Rio de Janeiro Environmental Agency deemed the water in the Copacabana Beach area “unfit” for swimming. But over the weekend more than 150 athletes dove into the water for an Olympic qualifier and Paratriathlon event.

On Monday, U.S. sailors Paris Henken and Helena Scutt, were training the waste-ridden Guanabara Bay.

“I haven't gotten sick. Helena hasn't gotten sick. No problems so far," Henken told NBC News.

Olympic gold medal sailor Marcelo Ferreira also said he hasn’t contracted anything from the bay, and takes solace in the fact that locals stay healthy even though they spend time in the water.

“Brazilians haven't caught anything," he told Reuters on Thursday.

But many Brazilians, unlike some athletes traveling from more than 200 foreign countries, have been exposed to the contaminated waters since childhood and have had the chance to build up immunities.

Dr. Carlos Terra, a hepatologist, told the AP that about 60 percent of Brazilian adults have been exposed to hepatitis A, mostly due to contact with sewage.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all travelers to Brazil get vaccinated for hepatitis A and Typhoid, which are both spread by contaminated food and water.

"Everybody runs the risk of infection in these polluted waters," Terra said.

In response to the AP testing and report, the Rio de Janeiro state environmental agency (INEA) said their waters should not be judged on virus level counts because there is no standard to compare the quantities to.

The agency said in a statement that they deem waters fit or unfit based only on bacterial levels, as is also the practice in the U.S. and Europe.

"The INEA clarifies that (it) monitors conditions of the waters of the Olympic lanes in accordance with national and international standards recommended by the Olympic Committee,” the statement, released on July 30, said.

Image: A discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio
FILE - In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.Silvia Izquierdo / AP

In a statement the International Olympic Committee said: "The health and welfare of the athletes is a top priority for the IOC. The Rio authorities are following WHO (World Health Organization) testing standards and according to the WHO there is no significant risk to athletes. Of course, we follow WHO guidance."

But on Saturday the World Health Organization asked the International Olympic Committee to test for viruses at Olympic sites, and the IOC says those tests will take place.

“We've always said we will follow the expert advice, so we will now be asking the appropriate authorities in Rio to follow the expert advice which is for viral testing. We have to follow the best expert advice," IOC medical director Dr. Richard Budgett told the AP.

The International Sailing Federation said they would also conduct independent testing.

"ISAF hopes that the power of the Olympic Games will provide a great legacy as Rio de Janeiro works to improve the state of the bay generally," the federation said in a statement before the announcement.

They also told NBC News that they are pleased with the increased activity to improve the state of the bay. Authorities have stepped up cleaning activity, including and eco-barriers and eco-boats.

An ISAF spokesman said moving the venues would be a "very last resort."

The AP said it will also continue testing Rio de Janeiro’s waters in the coming year. Three separate tests will leave little room for authorities in Rio de Janeiro to ignore the results.

“Instead of denying it, they should just say the waters not in good condition and do some works to recover it,” said oceanographer David Zee.

With 367 days to go until the 2016 summer Olympics, it’s unclear how much recovery can be done.

Andrada believes the water conditions can be remedied in time.

“The Olympic Games are made of athletes and we have to guarantee and we will guarantee their health and their safety. We also guarantee that they will compete in safe waters during Games time in swimming, in rowing and in sailing,” he said.

But for now, "the water is not safe enough," Zee said.

Meanwhile, Rio de Janeiro Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao signed a deal Monday with several Brazilian universities and research institutes to develop a plan for cleaning up the polluted waters of the city's sewage-strewn Guanabara Bay, where Olympic sailing events will be held.

Pezao hailed the deal as a "very important step" toward the long-promised cleanup.

Image: Triathletes exit the water during the men's triathlon
Triathletes exit the water during the men's triathlon ITU World Olympic Qualification Event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015. The World Olympic Qualification is a test event for the Rio 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)Felipe Dana / AP