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Olympians at risk of being exposed to viruses in Rio’s contaminated waters

Athletes competing in swimming and boating events at the 2016 summer Olympic games are in massive danger of becoming ill.

The waters have been found to be so contaminated with human faeces that participants could be rendered unfit to compete in the games.

In alarming results from an AP analysis, the waters – that Olympians and Paralympians are set to compete in – have been found to contain dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria, courtesy of the excessive amount of human faeces. Some competitors have already fallen ill, with fevers, suffering from symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea.


Water pollution is common in Brazil, and although there have been pledges to clean up their act, raw sewage is still prevalent, with the majority of it going untreated. This untreated raw waste makes it way through open-air ditches and ends up in rivers and streams that will feed into the Olympic water sites.

The AP analysis is the first comprehensive and independent test for both bacteria and viruses at the Olympic sites. The results were very damning for the country, but Brazilian officials have assured that all will be well by time the Olympics arrive. The medical director of the international Olympic Committee (IOC) has further assured that the country is well on its way to providing safe venues for its competitors. The IOC and the government rely solely on bacteria testing, and don’t test for viruses. The lack of virus testing means that the chances of Olympians coming into contact with viruses (which in some tests have been measured 1.7m times the amount that would be deemed hazardous on a California beach) are incredibly high.

“What you have there is basically raw sewage” explained John Griffith (marine biologist at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project). Griffith examined the results of the AP analysis, as well as the protocols and methodology “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. Those kinds of things would be shut down immediately if found here [United States]”.

Over 10,000 Olympians from 205 nations will be competing in next years Olympics, 1,400 of them will sail in waters Marina da Gloria (Gaunabara Bay) swim off Copacabana beach and canoe as well as row in Rodrigo de Freitas Lake. All three of these water venues (plus tourist favourite Ipanema Beach) were tested, with The AP commissioning four lots of tests. After testing for three types of human adenovirus, plus rotavirus, enterovirus and faecal coliforms, the AP found that not one of the waters were safe to swim or boat in. The tests showed high levels of human adenoviruses, which are known to cause digestive and respiratory illnesses such as severe vomiting, diarrhoea and in worse case scenarios can even lead to diseases that effect the brain and heart.

Fernando Spilki (virologist commissioned by the AP to conduct the water tests) explained that the waters “are chronically contaminated… the quantity of fecal matter entering the waterbodies in Brazil is extremely high. Unfortunately, we have levels comparable to some African nations, to India.”

Even in the least polluted areas, the concentration of viruses was equal to that of raw sewage. Dr. Carlos Terra (hepatoligist, and head of a Rio based association of doctors specialising in the research and treatment of liver disease) believes that “Everyone runs the risk of infection in these polluted waters”.

Kristina Mena (US expert for waterborne viruses) examined the data and estimated that athletes who ingested a mere three teaspoons of the water would have a 99% of infection (although whether a person falls ill or not is completely relative, and depends on factors such as their immunity levels). Swimmers are predominantly at risks, but the virus can enter the body through any orifice, as well as the eyes, mouth and wounds, meaning that any athlete that comes into contact with the water is at risk. “Given those viral concentration levels, do I think somebody should be exposed to those amounts? The answer is no”.

The sewage problem is so advanced that Griffith doesn’t believe that the water could be dealt with before the games “If I were going to be in the Olympics, 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”.

Although the concern about viruses is high Dr Richard Budgett (medical director for the International Olympic Committee) says there are currently no plans to change their program of only testing for bacteria “We’ve had reassurances from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk to athlete health…there will be people pushing for all sorts of other tests, but we follow the expert advice and official advice on how to monitor water effectively”.

Dr. Alberto Chebabo (Head of Rio’s Infectious Disease Society) explained that the risk is far higher for foreigners, because, unlike residents of the country, they have not built up any antibodies “Somebody who hasn’t been exposed to this lack of sanitation and goes to a polluted beach obviously has a much higher risk of getting infected”.

When making their Olympic bid Rio vowed to clean up their act, stating that the games would “regenerate Rio’s magnificent waterways” through the governments $4 billion (more than $1 billion of it being taxpayers money) expansion of basic sanitation infrastructure. Brazil had many strategies in place to improve the water supply, one of which was to build eight treatment facilities that would be used to filter out sewage, and stop waste making it’s way into water supplies. To this day only one has been built.

“Brazilian authorities promised the moon in order to win their Olympic bid and as usual they’re not making good on those promises…I’m sad but not surprised” Mario Moscatelli (a biologist has spent 20 year lobbying for Rio to clean up their waterways) said of his disappointment.

After what could be considered a number of failures, officials have now acknowledged that they may not be able to achieve what they originally planned “there’s not going to be time” Rio Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezao admitted.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes has deemed the countries failure to meet their Olympic promises (to fix the waterways) as “a wasted opportunity” and a “shame”.

Becky A @Bex18W

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