Paris considers plan B if Seine River remains unsuitable for Olympic swimming – National

With just three weeks to go until the Paris Olympics, organizers are making contingency plans as questions remain about the safety of the Seine River, where open-water swimming competitions will take place during the Summer Games.

The latest test results from the monitoring agency Eau de Paris, released on Thursday, raise hopes, showing that water pollution in the Seine in Paris has improved over the past week.

Concentrations of E. coli and enterococci bacteria were below legal thresholds for six of the nine days between June 24 and July 2. according to data published by the City of Paris.

“Despite a still high flow, the water quality of the Seine has improved over the period observed, with water quality in line with the thresholds set by the European directive for six days,” the city said in a statement accompanied by the results.

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Just a week ago, test results showed that the concentration of enterococci exceeded the limit of 1000 colony forming units (CFU)/100 ml. That is more than double the limit of 400 CFU/100 ml set by European legislation. The concentration of E. coli was almost four times higher than the permitted limit.

Joel Stratte-McClure, 75, of the US, takes a swim in the Seine River, Thursday, July 4, 2024, in Paris.

AP Photo/Thibault Camus

If pollution levels remain high, organizers in Paris will likely have to come up with a plan B to avoid health risks to athletes, said Marc Habash, an associate professor in the University of Guelph’s faculty of environmental sciences.

“If there are high levels of E. coli and enterococci indicating that the water is unsafe, and the water is of poor quality, in most cases they will have to make a decision whether or not to hold the swimming event,” he told Global News in an interview.

“If the water quality is not deemed safe, swimmers are not allowed to swim.”

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The Summer Olympics kick off on July 26 with the Opening Ceremony, which will see more than 10,000 athletes sail down the River Seine in boats.

The marathon swimming competitions from 8 to 9 August and the triathlon on 30 July, 31 July and 5 August are also on the programme in the Seine.

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On Friday, organizers told Reuters they were looking at other options, including a different location for the marathon swim and eliminating the swimming leg of the triathlon altogether.

“The World Triathlon rules allow the competition to be held in a duathlon format as a last resort,” a Paris 2024 spokesman told Reuters in French.

“On the other hand, in order to guarantee that marathon swimming competitions can still take place if all other contingency plans have been exhausted, we have put in place a contingency plan based at the Vaires-sur-Marne Nautical Stadium,” the spokesperson said.

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“The competition area, which is already used for rowing and canoeing events, has all the necessary facilities to host these events if necessary.”

Organizers told the Associated Press news agency on Friday that the events could be postponed for a few days if conditions on the Seine are unsafe.

At the time of publication, Global News had not yet received a response from Paris 2024 regarding the safety of the Seine and the emergency plan.

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According to Habash, it is not uncommon for sports organizations to test the water quality before a competition to ensure it is safe to swim in.

The Canadian Olympic Committee told Global News its medical team is in regular contact with the organizers of World Aquatics and Paris 2024. It added that the health and safety of Team Canada is its top priority.

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“We are confident that the events can take place safely in the Seine,” the COC said in an emailed statement.

The French capital is cleaning up the Seine so that people can swim in it again, as happened during the Paris Olympics in 1900.

But a sewage problem led to the cancellation of a swimming event last summer in preparation for the Olympic Games.

People sit along the Seine with stalls on the banks, Thursday, July 4, 2024 in Paris.

AP Photo/Thibault Camus

The level of water pollution depends on rainfall and water temperature, among other things. The organizers of Paris 2024 therefore hope that the weather will cooperate during the Games.

Recent heavy rainfall, which was greater than normal for this time of year, is a major contributor to the increased E. coli and enterococci counts, Habash said.

“If we don’t get much more rain in the coming weeks leading up to the Olympics, the expectation is that levels will fall over time,” he said.

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“And that’s really the unknown at the moment, are they going to get more rain? And if they do, that could keep the levels high.”

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According to experts, E. coli and enterococcus are used as water quality benchmarks to check for sewage or fecal contamination.

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While waterborne E. coli infection can occur in some cases, it is usually not the biggest concern, says Ted Steiner, an infectious disease physician at Vancouver General Hospital.

E. coli is a marker that indicates there may be other parasites, bacteria or viruses present that may be more infectious, he said in an interview with Global News.

“The concern for swimmers is that as they breathe they could certainly get some water in their mouth and swallow enough to potentially get a dose large enough to get sick,” he said.

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Gastrointestinal infections can cause stomach upset, vomiting and diarrhea, Habash said. There is also a risk of infection of the ears and respiratory tract, he added.

Steiner said skin infections in rivers are relatively rare and usually occur when there is a major break, such as a cut or abrasion.

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People with underlying immune system disorders are at greater risk of getting sick from contaminated water, he said.

If someone gets sick, there are medications to treat them, but most infections go away on their own, Steiner said.

“Young, healthy athletes with normal immune systems get sick and it’s usually a self-limiting illness, usually lasting less than a week, sometimes a little bit longer,” he said.

— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press.

Saba Aziz

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