With the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games just days away, athletes from around the world are in the final stages of preparation. In addition to competing, this year's open-water swimmers, rowers, sailors, triathletes, and others will face invisible foes, too: disease-causing microorganisms in Rio de Janeiro's waterways. For decades, raw sewage has been pumped into Rio's water, including the site of several Olympic events, Guanabara Bay. To be clear: There is literally poop in the water.
When it bid to host the 2016 Olympics, Brazil promised to clean up Rio's bays and beaches, and some progress has been made. "Work has been undertaken by the Rio authorities to monitor and improve the quality of the water in Guanabara Bay," the International Olympic Committee claimed in a statement emailed to VICE. These efforts include increasing water sanitation treatments and the reduction of industrial pollution and floating waste. There are now 17 barriers in place to stop debris from entering the Guanabara Bay, with boats collecting any floating debris that could enter areas of competition.
But the cleanup efforts have fallen short of what was promised, and it isn't clear how much raw sewage and dangerous microorganisms persist in the water. In July 2015, the Associated Press reported that an independent analysis of water quality showed high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage in Rio's Olympic and Paralympic water venues—levels that are up to 1.7 million times what would normally be considered alarming in the US or Europe. Recent reports obtained by Reuters have surfaced that dangerous, drug-resistant super bacteria have been found in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in the heart of Rio, as well as in a river that empties into Guanabara Bay.
Athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of contaminated water have a 99 percent chance of being infected by an enteric virus, which can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. "The data that has been released indicate that levels of sewage that have been released into the environment in Rio is so high that the likelihood of infection is imminent," Kristina Mena, an associate professor of environmental and occupational sciences at the University of Texas Houston School of Public Health, told VICE.
According to Mena, the risk of contracting a gastrointestinal illness or an infection "is driven by the level of exposure and the person's immune status and health status. Healthy athletes could potentially fight off enteric viruses, but it could affect their performance in competition."
Gastrointestinal illnesses aren't the only worry in Rio. Experts have been culturing substantial amounts of bacteria in the city's bay, where the open-water swimming and rowing events will take place; Becca Rodriguez, Team USA medical director for the high-performance training center in Flamengo, Brazil, told VICE that there are concerns athletes could develop staph, strep, or antibiotic-resistant staph skin infections if they have open wounds or cuts.
Of course, Olympic athletes tend to be fit and healthy with strong immune systems, but the risks associated with swimming, boating, or ingesting the contaminated water are so high that US Olympic Teams are taking extra precautions this year. The US Rowing Team will wear anti-microbial body suits to protect their skin from the dirty water; according to Rodriguez, those competing in the open swim will wear special masks. Athletes with open skin wounds will wear Tegaderm waterproof bandages to create a barrier between the water and their skin, and there will be shower stations with antibacterial soap at the competitive events so athletes can wash off as soon as they get out of the water. Their clothes will then be sent to a laundry service that sanitizes them within 24 hours to prevent the spread of infection. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers will also be in abundance.
In addition, Rodriguez told VICE that the US Olympic Committee will be bringing its own cooks from the US to make sure they're using proper food-safety precautions: "Athletes will be provided with yogurt, fermented foods, and probiotic supplements to improve their gut health and keep the [gastrointestinal tract] as strong as possible to fight off diseases." Athletes, trainers, and staff members are also instructed to drink only bottled water (and to use it to brush their teeth), to eat only at the Olympic Village and the High Performance Center cafeteria, and to avoid eating raw food; Rodriguez also said tourists should take the same precautions.
"We're telling athletes, 'Don't take any chances!'" Rodriguez said. "Team USA has a really good prevention and treatment protocol for our athletes that will be in the water. We've been bringing a strong foot forward to educate our athletes, focus on prevention, and not wait for symptoms to emerge."
Stacey Colino is a Chevy Chase, MD-based writer specializing in health, and the coauthor with David Katz of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.