Sun, Jul 31, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Aquatic Olympians to face toxic stew in Rio de Janeiro

Recent tests by government and independent scientists revealed a veritable petri dish of pathogens in many of the city’s waters, from rotaviruses that can cause diarrhea and vomiting to drug-resistant ‘superbacteria’ that can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems

By Andrew Jacobs  /  NY Times News Service, RIO DE JANEIRO

Illustration: Louise Ting

Health experts in Brazil have a word of advice for the Olympic marathon swimmers, sailors and windsurfers competing in Rio de Janeiro’s picture-postcard waters next month: Keep your mouth closed.

Despite the Brazilian government’s promises seven years ago to stem the waste that fouls Rio’s expansive Guanabara Bay and the city’s fabled ocean beaches, officials acknowledge that their efforts to treat raw sewage and scoop up household garbage have fallen far short.

In fact, environmentalists and scientists said Rio’s waters are much more contaminated than previously thought.

Recent tests by government and independent scientists revealed a veritable petri dish of pathogens in many of the city’s waters, from rotaviruses that can cause diarrhea and vomiting to drug-resistant “superbacteria” that can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.

Federal University of Rio researchers also found serious contamination at the upscale beaches of Ipanema and Leblon, where many of the half-million Olympic spectators are expected to frolic between sporting events.

“Foreign athletes will literally be swimming in human crap, and they risk getting sick from all those microorganisms,” said Daniel Becker, a local pediatrician who works in poor neighborhoods. “It’s sad, but also worrisome.”

Government officials and the International Olympic Committee acknowledge that, in many places, the city’s waters are filthy.

However, they said the areas where athletes will compete — such as the waters off Copacabana Beach, where swimmers will race — meet WHO safety standards.

Even some venues with higher levels of human waste — such as Guanabara Bay — present only minimal risk because athletes sailing or windsurfing in them will have limited contact with potential contamination, they said.

Still, Olympic officials concede that their efforts have not addressed a fundamental problem: Much of the sewage and trash produced by the region’s 12 million inhabitants continues to flow untreated into Rio’s waters.

“Our biggest plague, our biggest environmental problem, is basic sanitation,” said Andrea Correa, the top environmental official in the state of Rio de Janeiro. “The Olympics has woken people up to the problem.”

Foreign athletes preparing for the games have long expressed concern that waterborne illnesses could thwart their Olympic dreams. An investigation by The Associated Press last year recorded disease-causing viruses in some tests that were 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a southern California beach.

“We just have to keep our mouths closed when the water sprays up,” said Afrodite Zegers, 24, a member of the Dutch sailing team, which has been practicing in Guanabara Bay.

Some athletes here for the games and other competitions have been felled by gastrointestinal illness, including members of the Spanish and Austrian sailing teams.

During a surfing competition here last year, about a quarter of the participants were sidelined by nausea and diarrhea, organizers said.

Officials have been grappling with a welter of challenges as they scramble for the opening ceremony on Friday. The Zika virus epidemic has dampened foreign ticket sales, crime is soaring, and the federal government has been paralyzed by impeachment proceedings against suspended Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

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