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New studies raise fresh fears over Rio 2016 water quality

New independent testing on various waterways in Rio de Janeiro that will stage events at this summer’s Olympic Games has discovered drug-resistant ‘super bacteria’ at a number of sites, according to Reuters.

Two unpublished academic studies seen by the news agency state that the bacteria was found off beaches in Rio and in a lagoon where both rowing and canoe events will take place.

One of the studies, reviewed in September 2015 by the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in San Diego, US, identified microbes at five of Rio's beaches, including Copacabana where open-water and triathlon swimming will take place.

The second report, which was conducted by the Brazilian government's Oswaldo Cruz Foundation lab, found the super bacteria in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in Rio and in a river that empties into Guanabara Bay. The American Society for Microbiology intends to publish the study in full next month.

The super bacteria, which was also found in Guanabara Bay in late 2014 during a separate period of testing, is classified by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The bacteria can cause urinary, gastrointestinal, pulmonary and bloodstream infections, as well as meningitis, with the CDC adding that studies show the bacteria can contribute to death in up to half of patients infected.

Renata Picao, a professor at Rio's federal university and lead researcher of the first study, said the bacteria should not be present in these waters. Picao’s study is based on samples taken between September 2013 and September 2014, with Botafogo beach the worst affected. The Oswaldo Cruz study of the lagoon is based on water samples taken in 2013.

Although Games’ organiser have pointed out that the samples listed in both of these studies are a number of years old, Valerie Harwood, an expert in recreational water contamination and antibiotic-resistant bacteria at the University of South Florida, who was not involved in the studies, said the situation has worsened over time, as the super bacteria naturally spreads by infecting other microbes. Picao and other experts have also said they had seen no advances in sewerage infrastructure in Rio to improve the situation.

“Those genes are like candy,” Harwood told Reuters. “They are organic molecules and they'll be eaten up by other bacteria, other organisms. That's where the danger is – if a person then ingests that infected organism – because it will make it through their gastrointestinal tract and potentially make someone ill.”

Although Rio’s organising team has so far refused to directly address the latest tests, Rio state's Inea environmental agency said in a statement that it continues to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organisation, which do not include searching for super bacteria. Inea also said there is a lack of information as to what impact this type of bacteria can have on humans.