Vitality

Rio Olympics 2016: Water Pollution Presents 99% Risk Of Infection For Competing Athletes

Summer olympics
A new AP investigation reveals selected water venues for the summer Olympics in Rio are unsafe and pose risk of infection and illness. Daniel Coomber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We’re almost a year out from the Rio 2016 summer Olympic Games in Brazil — and the results of an Associated Press investigation suggest athletes have greater challenges ahead of them than their respective events. Turns out, the water on site is teeming with viruses and bacteria.

AP recently analyzed the water quality of three Olympic water venues, plus the surf off tourist favorite Ipanema Beach, and found “dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage.” They commissioned four rounds of testing to deliver a total of 36 water samples, each test checking for three types of adenovirus, as well as rotavirus, enterovirus, and fecal coliforms.

The test results revealed high counts of active and infectious viruses, “which multiply in the intestinal and respiratory tracts of people.” They’re known to cause respiratory and digestive illnesses, which might explain why some athletes already training in Rio have fallen ill fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea. Global water experts are all in agreement: Not one water venue slated for the summer Olympics is safe for swimming and boating events.

While Brazilian officials claim the water is safe for athletes to compete, their government doesn’t test for viruses, AP reported. Testing bacteria is actually the standard — and pollution isn’t a problem limited to Brazil. A 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found 10 percent of beaches in the United States fail waiter safety test due to heavy pollution and raw sewage.

John Griffith, a marine biologist at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project working with AP, explained raw sewage is “all the water from the toilets and the showers and whatever people put down their sinks, all mixed up, and it’s going out into the beach waters.” Whereas this type of thing is quickly shut down in the US, it’s not the case in places like Brazil, Griffith said.

So officials paying due diligence to Brazilian regulations on water quality isn’t saying much if these regulations only test for bacteria. There are currently no testing standards for quantity of virus and the effects it can have on human health.

"Everybody runs the risk of infection in these polluted waters," Dr. Carlos Terra, a hepatologist and head of a Rio-based association of doctors specializing in the research and treatment of liver diseases, told AP. Viruses can enter the body multiple ways, including the mouth, eyes, even small cuts.

Kristina Mena, an expert in risk assessment for waterborne viruses, also examined AP’s data and “estimated that international athletes at all water venues would have a 99 percent chance of infection if they ingested just three teaspoons of water.” Any subsequent consequences will vary among athletes.

"If I were going to be in the Olympics," said Griffith, the California water expert, "I would probably go early and get exposed and build up my immunity system to these viruses before I had to compete, because I don't see how they're going to solve this sewage problem."

 

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