Fears over athletes competing at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro becoming seriously ill due to contaminated water at swimming and boating events is not a new thing.
It has more or less plagued the games since the October 2009 announcement that Rio will be host city.
However, instead of well-awaited news concerning effective cleanup efforts, we’re getting an unhealthy dose of dead fish and new research commissioned by the Associated Press revealing extremely risky levels of bacterial and viral pathogens.
Clean waters by 2035
Cleaning up Guanabara Bay and its surrounding areas is just not possible by the start of the Olympics. While Brazilian officials previously insisted that the waters would be safe come game time, they’ve since all but thrown up their hands and set a new deadline for the cleanup.
Back in 2009, when Rio won its Olympic bid, the government of the state promised to treat at least 80 percent of the raw sewage entering the bay. According to an article from UOL Notícias, today only 50 percent is treated.
The Secretary of the Environment for Rio de Janeiro State has since referred this goal a mistake that cannot be met, a statement echoed by Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão.
The government of Rio de Janeiro has been forced to face reality and admit that the water, like their previous statements, is full of shit.
According to a new plan, over the next 20 years at least 12 billion real ($3.45 billion) will be invested in cleaning up the Guanabara region and depolluting the waters within it.
Nice that they are facing reality and promising to invest in tackling pollution and contamination. Not so nice for the athletes who have to row and — far worse —swim in water that has been highly polluted with raw sewage, including untreated human feces.
What are the risks to the athletes competing in Rio’s contaminated waters?
According to Alberto Chebabo, the President of the Society of Infectious Diseases of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the major risk for someone who accidentally drinks the waters of Guanabara Bay is contracting diarrheal diseases. However, there is also a risk of contracting hepatitis A if the individual has not been vaccinated against the disease.
Besides Guanabara Bay, Rodrigo de Freitas Lake was found to be one of the most polluted Olympic sites, despite years of cleanup efforts. Its waters, in which rowers and canoeists are set to compete, were found to contain amounts of adenoviruses ranging from tens of thousands to literally over a million times more than what would raise concerns among water quality monitors in Southern California.
Swimmers are most at risk
While all athletes, including those competing in sailing, canoeing and rowing, are at risk from contamination due to spraying and splashing, it is obviously swimmers who should be most concerned.
According to Kristina Mena, a specialist in risk assessment for waterborne viruses, ingesting just three teaspoons of water from all venues tested in the AP-sponsored study would result in a 99 percent infection rate.
Whether the athletes then got sick or not would depend on a variety of factors, such as their individual immune systems.
Are Olympic athletes going swim in sewage?
With those kinds of infection rates, you’d think that perhaps some alternative could be found, like swimming indoors, moving events to another part of the country or even cancellations.
For now, more testing is being recommended, this time at the behest of the World Health Organization, (WHO), which normally focuses on outbreaks of dangerous diseases such as Ebola.
The WHO is urging the International Olympic Committee to not only test for bacteria, which is customary, but also for viruses.
As for the athletes, so far it appears they are willing to risk a bit of waterborne disease for a chance at Olympic gold.