Filthy Rio wa­ter a threat at 2016 Olympics


The wa­ters where Olympians will com­pete in swimming and boating events next sum­mer in South Amer­ica’s first games are rife with hu­man sewage and present a se­ri­ous health risk for ath­letes, an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found.

The AP anal­y­sis of wa­ter qual­ity re­vealed dan­ger­ously high lev­els of viruses and bac­te­ria from sewage in venues where ath­letes will com­pete in wa­ter sports. Nev­er­the­less, an Olympic of­fi­cial said Thurs­day there are no plans to mon­i­tor for viruses, which many ex­perts con­sider the big­gest prob­lem.

In the first in­de­pen­dent com­pre­hen­sive test­ing for both viruses and bac­te­ria at the Olympic sites, the AP con­ducted four rounds of tests start­ing in March. The re­sults have alarmed in­ter­na­tional ex­perts and dis­mayed com­peti­tors train­ing in Rio, some of whom have al­ready have fallen ill with fev­ers, vom­it­ing and di­ar­rhea.

These ail­ments could knock an ath­lete out for days, po­ten­tially cur­tail­ing Olympics dreams and the years of hard train­ing be­hind them.

“This is by far the worst wa­ter qual­ity we’ve ever seen in our sail­ing ca­reers,” said Ivan Bu­laja, a coach for the Aus­trian team, which has spent months train­ing on the Gua­n­abara Bay. “I am quite sure if you swim in this wa­ter and it goes into your mouth or nose that quite a lot of bad things are com­ing in­side your body.”

Sailor David Hussl has al­ready fallen ill.

“I’ve had high tem­per­a­tures and prob­lems with my stom­ach,” Hussl said. “It’s al­ways one day com­pletely in bed and then usu­ally not sail­ing for two or three days.”

Wa­ter pol­lu­tion has long plagued Brazil’s ur­ban ar­eas, where most sewage isn’t col­lected, let alone treated. In Rio, much of the waste runs through open-air ditches to fetid streams and rivers that feed the Olympic wa­ter sites and blight the city’s pic­ture post­card beaches.

The Rio de Janeiro state en­vi­ron­men­tal agency re­leased a state­ment Thurs­day ques­tion­ing the AP’s test­ing and ac­cused vi­rol­o­gist Fer­nando Spilki, who car­ried out the test­ing, and his univer­sity of “seek­ing no­to­ri­ety.”

Spilki, a re­spected sci­en­tist who is a board mem­ber of the Brazil­ian So­ci­ety for Vi­rol­ogy and editor of its sci­en­tific jour­nal, is not be­ing paid by the AP to con­duct the test­ing.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal

agency’s note un­der­scored its po­si­tion that the Olympic wa­ters are safe, “with the ex­cep­tion of the Ma­rina da Glo­ria,” where sail­ing com­pe­ti­tions will kick off and which as re­cently as May was six times above Brazil’s le­gal limit for fe­cal co­l­iforms. In June, it was slightly above the limit.

The agency did not men­tion that the gov­ern­ment’s own data shows that on eight oc­ca­sions this year, most re­cently on June 25, the wa­ters in Copaca­bana Beach where long-dis­tance swim events will be held spiked above the le­gal bac­te­ria lim­its — con­sid­ered un­safe for bathers.

Mario Moscatelli, a bi­ol­o­gist who has spent 20 years lob­by­ing for a cleanup of Rio’s wa­ter­ways, said the state en­vi­ron­men­tal agency was try­ing to di­vert at­ten­tion from the se­ri­ous pol­lu­tion prob­lem af­fect­ing wa­ter.

“For years now we’ve seen the flow of raw sewage, which con­tains fe­cal co­l­iforms and other bac­te­ria, viruses, pro­to­zoa and an in­fi­nite num­ber of path­o­genic micro­organ­isms that can cause ev­ery­thing from ring­worm to hep­ati­tis,” Moscatelli said.

Dr. Richard Bud­gett, med­i­cal di­rec­tor for the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, said af­ter see­ing the AP find­ings that IOC and Brazil­ian author­i­ties would stick to their pro­gram of test­ing only for bac­te­ria to de­ter­mine whether the wa­ter is safe, as that is the ac­cepted norm glob­ally.

“We’ve had re­as­sur­ances from the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and oth­ers that there is no sig­nif­i­cant risk to ath­lete health,” he told the AP on the side­lines of an IOC meet­ing in Malaysia.

WHO didn’t re­spond to re­peated emailed and phoned re­quests for com­ment.

Bud­gett’s ad­vice for ath­letes who will com­pete in the virus-laden wa­ters? “Wash­ing your hands is an ex­tremely im­por­tant part of re­duc­ing the risk of in­fec­tion of any sort,” he said.

Wa­ter ex­perts say such safe­guards aren’t enough to pro­tect ath­letes who get drenched dur­ing com­pe­ti­tions and have an al­most cer­tain chance of be­ing in­fected by the viruses en­ter­ing their mouths, nose, cuts on skin or any open­ing of the body.

Brazil­ian author­i­ties had pledged that a ma­jor over­haul of the city’s wa­ter­ways would be among the Olympics’ most sig­nif­i­cant lega­cies. But the stench of raw sewage still greets trav­el­ers ar­riv­ing at Rio’s in­ter­na­tional air­port. Prime beaches re­main de­serted be­cause the surf is thick with pu­trid sludge, and pe­ri­odic die-offs leave the Olympic lake lit­tered with rot­ting fish.

More than 10,000 ath­letes hail­ing from over 200 coun­tries are ex­pected to com­pete in the Aug. 5-21, 2016, games. Nearly 1,400 of them will come into con­tact with wa­ters con­tam­i­nated by ram­pant sewage pol­lu­tion as they sail in the Gua­n­abara Bay; swim off of Copaca­bana Beach; and ca­noe and row on the brack­ish wa­ters of the Ro­drigo de Fre­itas Lake. Start­ing next week, hun­dreds of ath­letes will take to the wa­ters in Olympic trial events.

The AP’s tests over five months found not one venue fit for swimming or boating, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional ex­perts, who say it’s too late for a cleanup.

“What you have there is ba­si­cally raw sewage,” said John Grif­fith, a marine bi­ol­o­gist at the in­de­pen­dent South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Wa­ter Re­search Pro­ject. Grif­fith ex­am­ined the pro­to­cols, method­ol­ogy and re­sults of the AP tests. “It’s 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.”

In the U.S., Grif­fith said, ar­eas with such lev­els of con­tam­i­na­tion “would be shut down im­me­di­ately.”

Many wa­ter and health ex­perts in the U.S. and Europe are push­ing reg­u­la­tory agen­cies to in­clude vi­ral test­ing in de­ter­min­ing wa­ter qual­ity. But Leonardo Daemon, co­or­di­na­tor of wa­ter qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing for Rio state’s en­vi­ron­men­tal agency, said Brazil­ian reg­u­la­tions are based on bac­te­ria lev­els.

“What would be the stan­dard that should be fol­lowed for the quan­tity of virus? Be­cause the pres­ence or ab­sence of virus in the wa­ter ... needs to have a stan­dard, a limit,” he said.

Spilki, the Brazil­ian vi­rol­o­gist, car­ried out four rounds of vi­ral and bac­te­rial wa­ter test­ing for the AP, col­lect­ing sam­ples at three Olympic sites.

His test­ing looked for three dif­fer­ent types of hu­man ade­n­ovirus that are typ­i­cal “mark­ers” of hu­man sewage in Brazil. In ad­di­tion, he tested for en­teroviruses, the most com­mon cause of up­per res­pi­ra­tory tract in­fec­tions in the young, which can also lead to brain and heart ail­ments. He also tested for ro­tavirus, the main cause of gas­troen­teri­tis glob­ally.

The test re­sults con­sis­tently found high counts of ac­tive and in­fec­tious hu­man ade­n­oviruses, which cause ex­plo­sive di­ar­rhea, vi­o­lent vom­it­ing, res­pi­ra­tory trou­ble and other ill­nesses.

The con­cen­tra­tions of the hu­man ade­n­oviruses were roughly equiv­a­lent to that seen in raw sewage. As­so­ci­ated Press sports writer Stephen Wade and se­nior pro­ducer Yesica Fisch in Rio de Janeiro and sports writer Stephen Wil­son in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, con­trib­uted to this re­port.


In this July 14 photo, beach­go­ers wade into the wa­ters of Copaca­bana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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