River Seine still not safe for swimming on most days due to E. Coli bacteria levels, with Olympics set to start on July 26

Weeks before the Olympic Games are set to begin in Paris, the River Seine is still not safe for swimming on most days due to high levels of E. Coli bacteria in the water, according to official data.

Official testing by the city of Paris shows E. Coli levels at Alexandre III Bridge, where the triathlon events are planned to start later this month, have been above acceptable levels on the majority of days – 22 out of 30 – between June 3 and July 2, potentially exposing athletes to serious health risks.

However, authorities say there has been a general improvement in the Seine’s water quality as weather conditions have improved in recent weeks and are “confident for the Olympics now.”

“We are having weather that is more consistent with the season,” Antoine Guillou, Deputy Mayor of Paris, told CNN Wednesday in a telephone interview. “The quality of the Seine is good.”

The mayor of Paris told French radio Wednesday that she would swim in the city’s River Seine next week, in a bid to show its suitability for the Olympics despite ongoing cleanliness concerns.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo told France Inter radio that she would “dive in next week” and the water would be “depolluted, that’s for sure.”

Official data shows one-off rainfall events can quickly cause E. Coli levels to spike again.

As recently as June 30, following rain the previous day, E. Coli levels increased to around 2000 CFU/100mL at Alexandra III Bridge. That’s double the level needed for “good” water quality, as per World Triathlon standards.

If E. Coli levels are above 1000 CFU/100mL, the swimming leg of the triathlon will have to be cancelled, according to World Triathlon competition rules, unless the organization’s medical committee decides the race can go ahead.

Earlier this week, Paris 2024 told CNN that it has “full confidence” in the work undertaken by the City of Paris. “Nevertheless, the potential for unseasonal weather events requires us to be cautious,” they added.

The opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics is set to take place on the Seine on July 26 if currents are not too strong. A recent rehearsal on June 24 was cancelled due to strong water flows caused by heavy rainfall.

10x acceptable level

Swimming in the Seine has been illegal for more than 100 years due to the river’s pollution levels, though some swimming has been permitted recently as part of triathlon test events.

The individual triathlon races will begin with a 1.5-kilometer swim, followed by a 40K bike race – passing by the Le Grand Palais and Champs-Elysées – before finishing with a 10K run through the heart of the city.

A mixed team relay race involving four athletes – two men and two women – will start with each team member completing a 300-meter swim, followed by a 5.8K bike ride and 1.8K run.

Triathlon athletes swim in the Seine river during the men's 2023 World Triathlon Olympic Games Test Event in Paris, on August 18, 2023. - Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Triathlon athletes swim in the Seine river during the men's 2023 World Triathlon Olympic Games Test Event in Paris, on August 18, 2023. - Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Authorities have spent at least €1.4 billion ($1.55 billion) to clean up the Seine. One of the key infrastructure projects designed to help tackle the issue of pollution has been a new rainwater storage basin - called the Austerlitz basin - which can hold 20 Olympic swimming pools worth of water, according to a statement from Paris 2024.

The basin is now operational. Following rainy weather on June 17 and 18, the basin filled to 80% capacity, successfully preventing 40,000 m3 of wastewater and rainwater from being discharged into the Seine, according to the city of Paris.

But E. Coli levels near Alexandra III Bridge still climbed to around 10000 CFU/100mL on the second day of rain. That’s around 10 times higher than World Triathlon’s “good” water quality level, according to CNN’s calculation.

“If there is a storm on one day, yes, you can see a deterioration of the quality due to that storm. But then it is possible to wait until the swimming conditions are back,” Guillou said.

Cautious optimism

Concerns about the Seine’s poor water quality have been bubbling away for a while now. “We’ve had lots of rain in June, much more than usual. That explains why the quality of the Seine was above acceptable levels until late June,” Guillou said.

But some say the tide could be turning with the arrival of sunnier and drier weather conditions and new technology being deployed by the city of Paris.

Technology company Fluidion, founded in Paris in 2012, has been testing the Seine’s water near Alexandre III Bridge multiple times a week since early April. Longer term trends show there has been a “significant improvement” in water quality, according to Dan Angelescu, the company’s CEO.

The Seine serves as Fluidion’s primary research site, according to the company, hence why they routinely collect water samples for internal research efforts. CNN has not independently verified the organization’s findings.

Earlier this year, between early April and late May, E. Coli levels were just under 3400 MPN/100mL (an equivalent unit to CFU/100mL), according to Fluidion’s testing. That’s more than three times higher than the level needed for “good” water quality, according to CNN’s calculation.

In comparison, between June 24 and July 5, average E. Coli levels dropped to around 880 MPN/100mL, according to Fluidion.

Ongoing construction works for the upcoming 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games on the banks of the River Seine on July 1, 2024. - Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
Ongoing construction works for the upcoming 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games on the banks of the River Seine on July 1, 2024. - Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Paris 2024 shares the view that sunshine and higher temperatures have brought about a significant improvement in water quality, but they add that caution is still needed.

“The potential for unseasonal weather events requires us to be cautious, which is why we have put in place a number of contingency plans including options for postponing the events,” a Paris 2024 spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the “final resort” would be to downgrade the triathlon events to duathlons with no swimming.

For the marathon swimming events, the Vaires-sur-Marne Nautical Stadium in Seine-et-Marne, where the canoe-kayak and rowing events are being held, could act as an alternative venue, they said.

“As an organizing committee, our first priority and responsibility is to allow athletes who have been training for these Games for years, to complete their preparation for the competition with full peace of mind,” the spokesperson said.

Guillou added that a new 10-kilometre-long basin, located between Essonne and Val-de-Marne, is going to be made operational in the coming days, which like the Austerlitz basin will help to reduce pollution. “We are confident that with normal weather conditions there will not be any problem,” he said.

CNN’s Julen Chavin in Paris contributed to this report.

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