12/2/15, "AP test: Rio Olympic water badly polluted, even far offshore," AP, Brad Brooks, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
"Olympic sailor Erik Heil floated a novel idea to protect himself from
the sewage-infested waters he and other athletes will compete in during
next year's games: He'd wear plastic overalls and peel them off when he
was safely past the contaminated waters nearest shore.
was treated at a Berlin hospital for MRSA, a flesh-eating bacteria,
shortly after sailing in an Olympic test event in Rio in August. But his
strategy to avoid a repeat infection won't limit his risk.
round of testing by The Associated Press shows the city's Olympic
waterways are as rife with pathogens far offshore as they are nearer
land, where raw sewage flows into them from fetid rivers and storm
drains. That means there is no dilution factor in the bay or lagoon
where events will take place and no less risk to the health of athletes
like sailors competing farther from the shore.
"Those virus levels
are widespread. It's not just along the shoreline but it's elsewhere in
the water, therefore it's going to increase the exposure of the people
who come into contact with those waters," said Kristina Mena, an expert
in waterborne viruses and an associate professor of public health at the
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
about an extreme environment, where the pollution is so high that
exposure is imminent and the chance of infection very likely."
July, the AP reported that its first round of tests showed
disease-causing viruses directly linked to human sewage at levels up to
1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S.
or Europe. Experts said athletes were competing in the viral equivalent
of raw sewage and exposure to dangerous health risks almost certain.
The results sent shockwaves through the global athletic community,
with sports officials pledging to do their own viral testing to ensure
the waters were safe for competition in next year's games. Those
promises took on further urgency in August, after pre-Olympic rowing and
sailing events in Rio led to illnesses among athletes nearly double the
acceptable limit in the U.S. for swimmers in recreational waters.
Olympic and World Health Organization officials have flip-flopped on
promises to carry out viral testing in the wake of the AP's July report.
the AP's most recent tests since August show not only no improvement in
water quality — but that the water is even more widely contaminated
than previously known. The number of viruses found over a kilometer from
the shore in Guanabara Bay, where sailors compete at high speeds and
get utterly drenched, are equal to those found along shorelines closer
to sewage sources.
"The levels of viruses are so high in these
Brazilian waters that if we saw those levels here in the United States
on beaches, officials would likely close those beaches," Mena said.
Brazilian, Olympic and WHO officials now say Brazil needs only to carry
out testing for bacterial "markers" of pollution to determine water
quality. That's the standard used by nations around the globe, mostly
because it's been historically easier and cheaper.
The WHO on Wednesday said it had no comment on the AP's latest findings.
Rio 2016 Olympic organizing committee said in an emailed statement that
"the health and safety of athletes is always a top priority and there
is no doubt that water within the field of play meets the relevant
"Rio 2016 follows the expert advice of the World
Health Organization, whose guidelines for Safe Recreational Water
Environments recommend classifying water through a regular program of
microbial water quality testing."
However, in recent years technological advances have made it simpler and less expensive to monitor viral levels, too.
why many in the scientific communities in the U.S. and Europe are
pushing for legislation that would require viral testing of water. They
argue that repeated studies dating back decades have shown little to no
correlation between the levels of bacteria pathogens in water, which
quickly break down in salty and sunny conditions like those in tropical
Brazil, and the presence of viruses, which have been shown to last for
months, and in some cases years.
That disparity has surfaced in AP's testing in Rio, where the water
often falls within safe levels of fecal bacteria, but the same water
sample shows levels of viruses akin to raw sewage. Many of the testing
points show spikes in bacterial contamination, too — especially in the
Olympic lagoon and in the marina where sailors launch crafts.
waterways, like those of many developing nations, are extremely
contaminated because most of the city's sewage is not treated, let alone
collected. Massive amounts of it flow straight into Guanabara Bay. The
Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and the famous Copacabana Beach also are
Rio won the right to host the Olympics based
on a lengthy bid document that promised to clean up the city's scenic
waterways by improving sewage sanitation, a pledge that was intended to
be one of the event's biggest legacies.
Brazilian officials now acknowledge that won't happen.
AP's first published results were based on samples taken along the
shores of the lagoon where rowing and canoeing events will be held.
Other samples were drawn from the marina where sailors enter the water
and in the Copacabana Beach surf, where marathon and triathlon swimming
will take place. Ipanema Beach, popular with tourists and where many of
the expected 350,000 foreign visitors will take a dip during the games,
was also tested.
Since then, the AP expanded its testing to include offshore sampling
sites inside Olympic sailing courses in Guanabara Bay and in the middle
of the lagoon where rowing and canoeing lanes were located during recent
The tests found the lagoon and bay to be
consistently virus-laden throughout, but it also captured a spike in the
bacterial fecal coliforms in the lagoon — to over 16 times the amount
permitted under Brazilian law.
Mena, the waterborne virus expert,
said it makes sense for athletes to think that deeper into the bay and
lagoon would be safer, but the testing doesn't bear that out.
"One would expect to see more fluctuations with the levels of any pathogen in the water, but it's not there," she said.
a result, none of the venues are fit for swimmers or boaters, she said.
Athletes who ingest three teaspoons of water have a 99 percent chance
of being infected by viruses.
That assessment was echoed by Brazilian virologist Fernando Spilki,
coordinator of the environmental quality program at Feevale University
in southern Brazil, who is conducting monthly tests for the AP.
from the sailing courses and inside the lagoon prove that the viruses
are present even away from the shore, away from the sources of
pollution, and that they maintain extremely high viral loads," he said.
in Rio test events have tried many tricks and treatments to avoid
falling ill, including bleaching rowing oars, hosing off their bodies
the second they finish competing, and preemptively taking antibiotics —
which have no effect on viruses.
Despite those efforts, athletes
at a competition in August still fell ill. The World Rowing Federation
reported that 6.7 percent of 567 rowers got sick at a junior
championships event in Rio.
The International Sailing Federation
said just over 7 percent of sailors competing at a mid-August Olympic
warm-up event in Guanabara Bay fell ill — but the federation has not
conducted a full count of how many athletes got sick in the two weeks
following the competition, the rough incubation period for many of the
pathogens in the water.
Mena and other experts say it's difficult to put those figures into
international context as each geographic location has unique threats.
But in the U.S., for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency's
maximum illness rate for swimming is 3.6 percent — and many experts say
that is too high.
The German sailor, Heil, was one of those who got sick at the Rio test event.
never had infections on my legs. Never!" he wrote on the German sailing
team's blog in late August as he underwent painful treatment to scrape
the infections off his hips and legs. "The origin must be the Marina da
Gloria. In the future, we will try to travel to Rio right before the
start of any event, so that any diseases that show up only occur when we
are already back home."
In the year preceding the Olympics, AP is
examining monthly water samples for three types of human adenovirus as
well as enterovirus, rotavirus and bacterial fecal coliforms. The
viruses are found in human intestinal and respiratory tracts. They cause
digestive illnesses including vomiting, explosive diarrhea and
respiratory problems — all of which would knock athletes out of
competition. Serious heart and brain disease are also possible, though
rare. One type of analysis tests for adenovirus types 2 and 5, markers
for the sewage contamination.
Water quality experts say a virus
count hitting 1,000 per liter in the U.S. or Europe would cause extreme
alarm, leading in many cases to beach closures.
Viral levels were all 30,000 times higher than what is highly
alarming in the U.S. or Europe at each of the AP's new offshore sampling
sites: at a point 600 meters (yards) offshore and within the Sugarloaf
sailing race course; at 1,300 meters (yards) offshore within the Naval
School sailing circuit; and at a spot inside the Olympic lagoon where
rowing lanes are located, about 200 meters (yards) from shore.
September tests at the Naval School race course and offshore lagoon
points, the water was positive for enterovirus, a major cause of
respiratory illness, gastrointestinal ailments and, less often, serious
heart and brain inflammation.
Subsequent cell culture testing
showed the viruses in the lagoon water to be "active and infectious,"
but the samples taken from the sailing courses in the bay were not.
Mena, the risk assessment expert, said several factors inhibit viruses
from growing in a laboratory, but the sheer number of pathogens in Rio's
waters means the risk to human health is unacceptable.
Janeiro state authorities promised to complete sewerage infrastructure
near the Marina da Gloria by the end of this year and are making
progress. Authorities say Olympic venues will then be safe.
the high levels of sewage-linked pathogens found in the offshore sailing
courses "show that these viruses don't just come from the marina —
there are many, many points where sewage enters the bay," Spilki, the
Brazilian expert, said. "These pathogens we're looking for, especially
the viruses, are able to migrate in the currents in a big way."
Those pollution points are mostly the dozens of rivers that
crisscross metropolitan Rio and dump hundreds of millions of liters of
raw sewage into the bay each day. By the government's own estimate, just
half of the city's wastewater flowing into the bay is treated.
the AP report in July exposed the serious risk to athletes, Olympic and
World Health Organization officials have flip-flopped over whether they
would carry out their own viral testing.
The WHO, which acts in
an advisory role to the IOC, took four different positions on whether or
not viral testing should be carried out between July and mid-October.
In an Oct. 24 email, the WHO told the AP that it didn't feel Olympic
officials needed to conduct "routine" viral testing, but added that it
was not "unconcerned with viral pathogens in water" and that water
quality and monitoring would be discussed in Brazil once again in late
Mel Stewart, an American who won two swimming gold
medals and a bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Games, said if his daughter
were a contender in an open-water swimming competition in Rio, he would
tell her not to compete.
"A gold medal is not worth jeopardizing
your health," Stewart said. "Right now there are too many questions. I
don't see safety. It doesn't appear at this point that the athletes are
being thought of first."
Interactive, summary findings and methodology of AP's study: http://interactives.ap.org/2015/brazil-water/"
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