Sports

Rio Olympics: Venue contaminated with human feces

Athletes in next year's Summer Olympics here will be swimming and boating in waters so contaminated with human feces that they risk becoming violently ill and unable to compete in the games, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Experts forecast 99 per cent chance of infection after ingesting 3 teaspoons of water

Dead fish and debris float in the Guanabara Bay in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil. (Google Images)

Athletes in the 2016 Rio Olympics will be swimming and boating in waters so contaminated with human feces that they risk becoming violently ill and unable to compete in the games, an Associated Press investigation has found.

An AP analysis of water quality revealed dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage in Olympic and Paralympic venues — results that alarmed international experts and dismayed competitors training in Rio, some of whom have already fallen ill with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea.

It is the first independent comprehensive testing for both viruses and bacteria at the Olympic sites.

The water quality issue prompted the following response from swimming Canada's High Performance Director, John Atkinson. "We have been monitoring and are well aware of the situation regarding Rio water quality, which is now being publicized in the media. The well-being of our athletes is our primary concern and we expect the competition environment to meet the world-class standards demanded by an Olympic Games.

"We will work with our swimmers and medical staff to have an appropriate plan in place. We have a strategy in place and will implement both preventative measures and a treatment plan should any illness occur to our athletes. We will work with all athletes attending the Rio test event in August. That's why we have test events. We will continue to work through the appropriate channels to make sure conditions are appropriate."

Brazilian officials have assured that the water will be safe for the Olympic athletes and the medical director of the International Olympic Committee said all was on track for providing safe competing venues. But neither the government nor the IOC tests for viruses, relying on bacteria testing only.

Extreme water pollution is common in Brazil, where the majority of sewage is not treated. Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that feed the Olympic water sites.

As a result, Olympic athletes are almost certain to come into contact with disease-causing viruses that in some tests measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.

Raw sewage

Despite decades of official pledges to clean up the mess, the stench of raw sewage still greets travellers touching down at Rio's international airport. Prime beaches are deserted because the surf is thick with putrid sludge, and periodic die-offs leave the Olympic lake, Rodrigo de Freitas, littered with rotting fish.

"What you have there is basically raw sewage," said John Griffith, a marine biologist at the 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. Those kinds of things would be shut down immediately if found here," he said, referring to the U.S.

More than 10,000 athletes from 205 nations are expected to compete in next year's Olympics. Nearly 1,400 of them will be sailing in the waters near Marina da Gloria in Guanabara Bay, swimming off Copacabana beach, and canoeing and rowing on the brackish waters of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake.

The AP commissioned four rounds of testing in each of those three Olympic water venues, and also in the surf off Ipanema Beach, which is popular with tourists but where no events will be held. Thirty-seven samples were checked for three types of human adenovirus, as well as rotavirus, enterovirus and fecal coliforms.

The AP viral testing, which will continue in the coming year, found not one water venue safe for swimming or boating, according to global water experts.

Instead, the test results found high counts of active and infectious human adenoviruses, which multiply in the intestinal and respiratory tracts of people. These are viruses that are known to cause respiratory and digestive illnesses, including explosive diarrhea and vomiting, but can also lead to more serious heart, brain and other diseases.

Huge health risks

Kristina Mena, a U.S. expert in risk assessment for waterborne viruses, examined the AP data and estimated that international athletes at all water venues would have a 99 per cent chance of infection if they ingested just three teaspoons of water — though whether a person will fall ill depends on immunity and other factors.

Besides swimmers, athletes in sailing, canoeing and to a lesser degree rowing often get drenched when competing, and breathe in mist as well. Viruses can enter the body through the mouth, eyes, any orifice, or even a small cut.

The Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, which was largely cleaned up in recent years, was thought be safe for rowers and canoers. Yet AP tests found its waters to be among the most polluted for Olympic sites, with results ranging from 14 million adenoviruses per litre on the low end to 1.7 billion per litre at the high end.

By comparison, water quality experts who monitor beaches in Southern California become alarmed if they see viral counts reaching 1,000 per litre.

"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."

Ivan Bulaja, the Croatian-born coach of Austria's 49er-class sailing team, has seen it firsthand. His sailors have lost valuable training days after falling ill with vomiting and diarrhea.

"This is by far the worst water quality we've ever seen in our sailing careers," said Bulaja.

Training earlier this month in Guanabara Bay, Austrian sailor David Hussl said he and his teammates take precautions, washing their faces immediately with bottled water when they get splashed by waves and showering the minute they return to shore. And yet Hussl said he's fallen ill several times.

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

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now