Two new academic studies shared with Reuters news show that scientists have found drug-resistant “super bacteria” off Rio de Janeiro beaches – some of which will be hosting Olympic events in August. These deadly microbes, normally only found in hospital settings, have been turning up in the waters near some of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. Though city officials are blaming illegal dumping for the contamination, it more likely has something to do with the fact that Rio pumps literal tons of raw sewage into the ocean with only minimal treatment for safety.
Though Brazil promised to clean the city’s waterways as part of its initial Olympic bid in 2009, that goal has yet to materialize. If anything, the city’s waste-filled waters have only become worse in the intervening years. Athletes have long complained of a sewage stench in the areas where they’re meant to compete, and the amount of debris floating along the shore could pose a potential hazard to swimmers.
The super bacteria were first detected in a 2014 study off Guanabara Bay, where the sailing and wind-surfing competitions are supposed to be held. Last September, new studies showed that the contamination had spread to five other beaches in Rio, including the Copacabana where the open-water and triathlon swimming competitions are supposed to occur.
These bacteria can cause difficult to treat urinary, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, and bloodstream infections and they have been linked to meningitis. According to the CDC, up to 50% the patients with a bloodstream infection from these microbes die. While not everyone exposed will develop an illness, scientists are concerned that the bacteria could lay dormant in a healthy person until they become sick or have a weakened immune system, at which point doctors may be unable to do anything to help. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about these bacteria is the fact that they’re able to pass on their antibiotic resistance to other germs present in the water.
Despite the public health risk, it seems Rio’s Olympic organizing committee is doing nothing. When Reuters reporter Brad Brooks contacted officials, they simply refused to answer questions and referred him to state authorities. In speaking to the state environmental agency, Brooks was told that World Health Organization recommendations for testing the safety of recreational waters don’t include screening for superbugs at all.
This isn’t the first time someone’s raised the alarm about the condition of the waters athletes are expected to compete in. As early as last July, the AP reported that viruses associated with human sewage had been found at levels 1.7 million times higher than the levels considered “highly alarming” in the US and Europe.
Pre-Olympic rowing and sailing events in Rio a month later resulted in a high number of illnesses among the athletes, with one Olympic sailor from Germany claiming he contracted MRSA so severe he had to undergo surgery. Some of the athletes in the test events resorted to pouring bleach on their water bottles and rinsing with antibacterial mouthwash between events. In fact, the water is so disgusting that coaches are telling sailors to wash their hands after touching wet gear during the competition. The US rowing team is even wearing special suits knitted with antimicrobial material in the hopes of reducing exposure.
Unfortunately, with the competition only weeks away, it’s far too late to move the venue to a more suitable location. Hopefully this will be a lesson for the International Olympic Committee in the future — choosing a venue with known public safety issues based on the reassurance that the problem will be solved a few years down the line is a terrible idea.