Competitors gearing up for next year's summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro have fallen sick while training and competing in the city's water venues, which reportedly contain levels of bacteria and viruses equivalent to raw sewage.
An independent analysis of water at Olympic sites around the city conducted by the Associated Press found that not a single water venue was safe for swimming, boating, or other water sports.
The report said that pollution was caused by runoff from sewage plants directly into waterways that lead to rivers and streams. The tests confirmed that every Olympic water venue was contaminated with hazardously high levels of disease-inducing viruses. The levels were found to be 1.7 million times higher than what would be considered dangerous at a Southern California beach.
"What you have there is basically raw sewage," said John Griffith, a marine biologist at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, who analyzed 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 [in the US]."
Athletes who have begun training in qualifier events at sites in Rio have already begun feeling the effects, with some experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, and fevers.
"Everybody runs the risk of infection in these polluted waters," said Dr. Carlos Terra, a hepatologist who heads a Rio-based medical association specializing in liver disease research and treatment.
Brazilian environmental officials say that they are following all protocols for quality control and say the water will be safe for the upcoming competition. Rio's municipal environmental secretariat head, Vera Oliveira, said the city was not testing for virus levels at the Olympic lake, Rodrigo de Freitas. The state's coordinator of water quality monitoring, Leonardo Daemon, said all water testing is based on bacteria levels, which is the standard for almost all countries.
The International Olympic Committee's medical director, Dr. Richard Budgett, backed up Brazil in saying authorities should continue to test only for bacteria, even after seeing the AP findings.
"We've had reassurances from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk to athlete health," he said outside an IOC meeting in Malaysia. "There will be people pushing for all sorts of other tests, but we follow the expert advice and official advice on how to monitor water effectively."
Dr. Alberto Chebabo, who heads Rio's Infectious Diseases Society, said that people in Rio have been exposed to the viruses endemic to the waters, and build up antibodies. Not so for foreign athletes and tourists.
"Somebody who hasn't been exposed to this lack of sanitation and goes to a polluted beach obviously has a much higher risk of getting infected," Chebabo said.
Griffith, the Southern California marine biologist, has another suggestion. "If I were going to be in the Olympics, 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."
This article is based on reporting by the Associated Press.