Rio de Janeiro, as you may know, is hosting the Olympics this August. I’m sure many people are very excited. I’m not sure that any potential participants in the open-water swimming or sailing events are too excited, though, since it appears they’ll be competing in the microbial equivalent of an open sewer:
A new 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. “We’re talking about an extreme environment, where the pollution is so high that exposure is imminent and the chance of infection very likely.”
In 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 Rio Olympic committee is only required to test the water for bacterial contamination, which they claim is within safe limits (independent tests have shown otherwise), but the real problem is the water’s viral content, which is, again, equivalent to raw sewage according to most testing. Brazil had promised to address sewage concerns when it won the bid to host these games, but, well, oops. The water is so bad that a University of Texas expert in waterborne viruses named Kristina Mena told the AP that anyone ingesting as little as 3 teaspoons of the stuff has a 99% chance of getting sick. I don’t know about you, but I probably ingest more than that doing a couple of laps in a pool, nevermind trying to swim the 1500 meters that an Olympic triathlete is expected to cover. And sailors are at risk too; this whole story came out after sailors doing test runs in Rio’s bay “mysteriously” started getting sick right afterward.
Rio has just been hit with another potential health risk leading into this summer’s Games: the arrival of the Zika virus, which among other things can cause birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. That’s largely out of their control, though. This sewage business was very much in their control, and unfortunately a lot of Olympic competitors are in for a very unpleasant experience because they failed to do anything about it.
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