Just days ahead of the Olympic Games, Rio waterways are as filthy as ever, contaminated with raw human sewage teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria, according to a 16-month-long study commissioned by the AP. Not only are some 1,400 athletes at risk of getting violently ill in water competitions, but the AP's tests indicate tourists also face potentially serious health risks on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana—not just in the water but also in the sand. The AP's survey of the aquatic Olympic and Paralympic venues has revealed consistent and dangerously high levels of viruses from the pollution, a major black eye on Rio's Olympics that has set off alarm bells among sailors, rowers, and open-water swimmers. The most contaminated points are the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where Olympic rowing will take place, and the Gloria Marina, the starting point for the sailing races. In light of these findings, Dr. Valerie Harwood, a University of South Florida integrative biology professor, has some advice for travelers to Rio: "Don't put your head underwater."
The first results of the study published last July showed viral levels at up to 1.7 million times what would be considered worrisome in the US or Europe. At those concentrations, anyone who ingests just 3 teaspoons of water is almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and, more rarely, heart and brain inflammation. Athletes have since been taking elaborate precautions, including preventatively taking antibiotics, bleaching oars, and donning plastic suits and gloves to limit water contact. But antibiotics combat bacterial infections, not viruses, and the AP probe found infectious adenovirus readings turned up at nearly 90% of the test sites. "That's a very, very, very high percentage," Harwood says. "Seeing that level of human pathogenic virus is pretty much unheard of in surface waters in the US." While local authorities, including Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, have acknowledged the failure of the city's water cleanup efforts, Olympic officials continue to insist Rio's waterways will be safe for athletes and visitors. (Read more 2016 Olympics stories.)