#UK A Rio Olympics waterway has sewage-like levels of viruses — and no one knows how dangerous it really is

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Guanabara Bay

Months after initially reporting on the high levels of viruses in waterways that will serve as venues in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Associated Press is back with another disturbing investigation. According to the AP, the virus and human waste-filled waterways of Guanabara Bay are more contaminated than previously thought — and could pose a real danger to athletes.

The Guanabara Bay pollution is part of a larger problem in Rio de Janeiro, which doesn’t properly collect or treat much of its sewage. As a result, raw sewage flows into the bay from rivers and storm drains. The problem has been gradually getting worse for decades, according to David Zee, an oceanography professor at Rio’s state university.

While initially it appeared that the water pollution was worse closer to shore, the AP’s newest investigation indicates that the virus levels are just as high further into the bay, where athletes will be competing.

When the AP first performed tests in July, levels of human disease-causing adenoviruses in Guanabara Bay, which will host Olympic sailing events, were up to 1.7 million times higher than what’s considered a “safe” level in US and European waters. Adenoviruses can cause ear infections, conjunctivitis, and tonsillitis, among other things.  They can potentially last in water from months to years. 

According to Zee, no one really knows how dangerous these levels of viruses are for Olympic sailors, who will likely be splashed with it during competition. The viruses and bacteria in the water could easily infect a cut or scrape, and would be especially dangerous if the water splashed onto their mouths or into their noses.Guanabara Bay“We don’t have enough data to compare [to other bodies of water]. Even in the US, there are only two states, Hawaii and California, that track viruses,” Zee tells Tech Insider. “Now the Rio government is starting to think about it, but there’s not enough time before the Olympics.” 

Earlier this summer, a German sailor participating in an Olympics test event contracted a leg infection after sailing on the water, but doctors aren’t able to say the infection came specifically from the water. “It’s hard to figure out the origin of illness, stress can also decay immunity,” which makes someone more receptive to infection, notes Zee.

Viruses aren’t the only problem in Guanabara Bay. In July, the AP also found abnormally high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Levels of the bacteria, which are linked to diseases like cholera and typhoid, were above normal in the bay, but not as high as the adenovirus levels. This could be because fecal coliform doesn’t survive as long as adenoviruses in water. 

Zee is advocating for an extensive river treatment system that collects trash and waste inside Guanabara Bay. Some river treatment units are in place, but not enough to fix the pollution problem entirely.

The challenge is convincing the city to pay for treatment. “If you give sewage treatment to one house, you can charge the cost to the house. But if you clean the river, who are you going to charge?” 

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