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AP Study Finds Viruses Linked To Raw Sewage In Rio De Janeiro Olympic Waters


Beware of the water. Aquatic venues for next summer's Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro are heavily contaminated by sewage with dangerous levels of viruses and bacteria. That's according to an extensive study by the Associated Press. And the APs Brazil bureau chief Brad Brooks joins me now to talk about what they found. Brad, we've known for some time about bacteria levels in the waters around Rio. Your study actually looks at viral levels - focuses on viral levels. What did you find?

BRAD BROOKS: We found that viruses linked to human sewage are present in the waters around Rio de Janeiro in astronomically high numbers, like, you know, 1.7 million times the figures that you might find on a beach in Southern California.

BLOCK: And what would the effects be of the viruses that you - that your study's found in these waters? What would happen to athletes?

BROOKS: We found that if an athlete ingests just three teaspoons of this water, they have a 99 percent chance of being infected. That doesn't mean they'll get sick, but if they do get sick, probably what they'll have are really severe flulike symptoms. That's at one level. At the higher level, there are more serious diseases connected to these viruses. And those include hepatitis A, and they can have a virus that can cause heart inflammation and also even meningitis.

BLOCK: What sports would be affected by this? Which sports are going to be in the waters that you studied?

BROOKS: There will be about 1,400 athletes involved in sailing - various types of sailing, rowing, marathon swimming and triathlon swimming.

BLOCK: You've been talking to some athletes who are already training in Rio. What have they told you? Have they noticed problems already?

BROOKS: Absolutely. We spoke with the Austrian sailing team, and they said that without question, these are the worst sailing conditions they've ever seen and that they themselves have become very ill often.

BLOCK: What's the source of all this sewage in Rio's waters because there've been plans for a long time to clean this up. What's happened?

BROOKS: The source is unquestionably human sewage, and it's just the simple fact that Rio de Janeiro - the population grew so rapidly that the sewage system cannot keep up. The people responsible for building out a sewage system did not do it.

BLOCK: And when you talked to officials in Brazil about cleanup - what're you going to do; the Olympics are about a year away - what do they tell you?

BROOKS: They just say that they're focusing on the bacterial markers in the water, that that's what's in Brazil's legislation, that's all that they have to follow and that they just simply say that the athletes will be safe. There's no way they can build out a sewage infrastructure that will get rid of the viruses in the water. It's impossible.

BLOCK: So they could get rid of the bacteria, you're saying, but the viruses would remain.

BROOKS: The bacteria don't last as long in the water. They're not as resistant to sun and salt, whereas the viruses are. So the bacteria tend to not go away, but they can be at much lower levels than the viral levels we found.

BLOCK: Well, if this doesn't get fixed before the Olympics, what're athletes going to do? What have they told you about that?

BROOKS: Athletes have gone very quiet about this. This has become a very sensitive topic. One of our health experts suggested that the athletes come down now, essentially, and make themselves sick in the hopes that they would build up immunities, which he said not quite in jest, but it's an extreme measure to expose yourself to these pathogens in the hopes that by the time the Olympic event rolls around, you have built up immunities to them so you won't be sick.

BLOCK: That sounds like a really nasty process to have to go through.

BROOKS: Very nasty and highly unlikely to work, according to our experts.

BLOCK: Brad Brooks is the Brazil bureau chief for the Associated Press. Brad, thanks.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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