With Olympic Water Sports Looming, Bad News on Seine

River in Paris has levels of E. coli bacteria that are beyond limits determined to be safe for humans
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 15, 2024 10:30 AM CDT
With Olympic Water Sports Looming, Bad News on Seine
Athletes swim in the Seine on Aug. 17 on the first leg of a women's triathlon test event for the Olympics in Paris.   (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

Water in the Seine had unsafe elevated levels of E. coli less than two months before swimming competitions are scheduled to take place in it during the Paris Olympics, according to test results published Friday. Contamination levels in the first eight days of June, after persistent heavy rain in Paris, showed bacteria such as E. coli and enterococci beyond limits judged safe for athletes. The report was published by monitoring group Eau de Paris, one day after a senior International Olympic Committee executive said there were "no reasons to doubt" races will go ahead as scheduled in a historic downtown stretch of the Seine near the Eiffel Tower. The first Olympic event in the cleaned-up Seine is the men's triathlon, including an under-1-mile swim, on the morning of July 30. The women's triathlon is the next day, and a mixed relay event is on Aug. 5.

Marathon swimming races that are more than 6.2 miles for women and men are scheduled on Aug. 8 and 9, respectively, in waters that were historically polluted before a $1.5 billion investment ahead of the Olympics. "We are confident that we will swim in the Seine this summer," IOC official Christophe Dubi said Thursday at an online briefing after hearing an update from Paris officials and Olympic organizers. Despite the IOC's publicly expressed confidence, the final decision on approving the events as safe for athletes should rest with the governing bodies of individual sports, World Aquatics and World Triathlon. The safety of the Seine water for the Olympics has been in doubt since some test events scheduled last August were canceled, also after unseasonally heavy rains. According to European standards, the safe limit for E. coli is 900 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters.

The World Triathlon Federation uses the same criteria to determine sufficient water quality for competitions. During the first eight days of June, test results showed that E. coli levels frequently exceeded these thresholds. Enterococci levels were better, mostly staying within safe limits. The tests indicated an improvement, from high contamination levels on June 1 to more acceptable levels by June 9, mainly due to improved weather. Rainwater infiltrates the sewer system, and to prevent street flooding, the excess water, carrying fecal bacteria, is diverted into the Seine. To address this, a massive reservoir capable of storing 1.8 million cubic feet of water during heavy rainfall was inaugurated in May. Water quality of rivers in major cities can be impacted by many things, from runoff to dumping of chemicals, sometimes illegally, and boat traffic.

(More Seine stories.)

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