In Rio, Olympic athletes will swim in sewage-contaminated water

In the coming weeks, trials and test runs begin for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. An investigation by the Associated Press has revealed that athletes will be swimming and boating in waters dangerously contaminated by sewage, viruses and fecal matter. William Brangham learns more from the AP’s Bradley Brooks.

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    Rio de Janeiro may sound quite appealing as the host site of next year's Summer Olympics. But a new report out today finds athletes could be swimming and boating in waters that are highly contaminated, polluted by sewage, viruses and fecal matter.

    The investigation by the Associated Press suggests athletes could become ill as they compete.

    William Brangham has the story.


    Rio's polluted waters are the result of decades of neglected or nonexistent sewage infrastructure, so, in the coming weeks, as trials and test runs begin for the 2016 Olympics, some athletes will be competing in waters that contain over a million times more contamination than levels allowed in U.S. waters.

    Bradley Brooks is the bureau chief for the A.P. in Brazil. He co-wrote this new investigation, and he joins me now from Rio.

    So, Bradley Brooks, how did these waters get so polluted?

  • BRADLEY BROOKS, Associated Press:

    William, these waters have been polluted for decades.

    And basically what happens is that Rio grew so fast since the 1960s, that the infrastructure of the sewage system simply could not keep up with that growth. So what you have are poor communities, slums, that cling to these steep hillsides and have no sewage. And so what happens is, all the sewage runs downhill and drains into the basin, bowl that is Rio de Janeiro and flows into the streams and into the oceans and into the lake.


    Here in the U.S., people are familiar with the idea that when bacteria levels get to a certain level, they close the beaches. How do the levels that you found in Rio compare to what we might be familiar with here in the U.S.?


    They're astronomical. Even the bacterial levels are much, much higher than you see in the U.S.

    The A.P. study went further. We searched for viruses that are specifically linked to human sewage. Those numbers that we found are off the charts, astronomical. Scientists that we spoke with in the U.S., and Brazil and in Europe said that they are numbers that they have never seen anywhere else. Here in Brazil, the difference is, however, that they don't close the beach.


    What does this mean for the athletes? They obviously have to get into these waters. What are the chances that athletes competing in these events are going to get sick?


    The U.S. expert who looked at our data, she ran a risk assessment and she said that, based on our data, there's a 99 percent chance that athletes will be infected by one of these viruses if they ingest three teaspoons of water.

    I should underscore that just because they are infected, that doesn't mean they will get sick. If they fall ill, that depends on a number of other factors that are just unknown until they actually ingest the water.


    Is there anything that an athlete can do to protect themselves? If they have to get into the water, is there anything they can do in advance to protect themselves?


    Well, there's no protective gear, per se.

    Some people have suggested wearing masks, so that they don't have to inhale the water, inhale droplets. One of our experts in the U.S. suggested that the athletes show up in Rio much earlier than they expected to simply expose themselves to the viruses and, in essence, to make themselves get sick several times, so that, by the time the Olympics rolls around, they might not be sick, they might have built up immunities.

    But most health experts say that that's impossible. It takes years and years to build up immunities to these viruses.


    Has the International Olympic Committee said anything about your findings? Are they going to do anything about this?


    The IOC and Brazilian officials told the Associated Press today that they will not change the way that they evaluate the health of the water, meaning they will continue only to look for bacteria.

    They will not look for viruses, despite the fact that our study showed astronomical numbers, levels of viruses in the water. In addition to that, the Brazilian officials blasted out at the AP. They questioned our data. They questioned the integrity of the scientists who carried out our data, and they questioned the university that he is attached to.

    They did all that, instead of simply answering the question of whether or not they're going to look into this question of viruses in the water.


    All right, Bradley Brooks of the Associated Press, thanks so much for being here.


    Thank you. I appreciate it.

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