Rio de Janeiro was the host city for the recent 2016 Olympic games. However, what most of us are not aware of is the huge pollution problem the city faces. Brazil has huge problems with pollution in general, but specifically with waterway pollution. Since many of the countries poor don’t have access to running water, flushing toilets, or any form of garbage disposal, rivers and streams are usually used to dump trash. Raw sewerage, polluted waste water, and household waste – among other things – are released directly into these waterways, which carry them away. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”.
Due to the fact that it recently held the Olympic games – one of the largest international events with a huge media coverage – we would expect Rio to be relatively clean and pollution free. Unfortunately, this is not so. Many of the bays where Olympians swam, rowed, and sailed left much to be desired. Despite promises from the Brazilian government to ensure safe conditions, it is a wonder that some Olympic events were allowed to go ahead at all¹.
After a water study by the Associated Press in the lead up to the Olympics, people came to one conclusion – the water was absolutely unsafe to come in contact with. One biomedical expert from the University of South Florida had some sound advice for athletes: “Don’t put your head underwater”. According to the data from the water quality study, levels of adenovirus were thousands of times higher than the international standards for safety². Another source put this value at around 1.7 million times what would be considered alarming in the US or Europe³.
The same study came to the conclusion that the concentration of harmful pathogens in the bay was so high that severe stomach and respiratory illnesses were likely to result from swallowing as little as three teaspoons (15 millilitres) of the water². As a part of their Olympic bid, the city of Rio de Janeiro committed to having 80% of sewerage treated before the games began. They fell far short of this, which shows just how much raw sewerage is being released directly into the environment. Just days before the beginning of the Olympics, the water quality was still so poor that athletes were been urged to “keep their mouths closed”. Tourists were advised not to enter the water, as they were likely to fall ill with life threatening sicknesses⁴.
There were three main bodies of water which were used for Olympic events. In the picturesque Guanabara bay, the sailing took place. In the same bay, the stench of raw sewerage entering via numerous open sewers was said to be overwhelming. The open water swimming events took place not far away at the famous Copacabana beach. Although the water there is regularly cleared of trash so swimming can take place, the quality is still so poor that athletes took numerous preventative measures. Some took strong antibiotics in the weeks leading up to the events, while others wore specially designed pathogen proof swimming suits. The rowing and canoeing took place in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, which has long been known for its horrible pollution problem.
A professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who specialises in water environmental issues, said that one of the largest risks was to sailors who were sprayed with water – not to mention if they capsized. Yes you read that right, the sailors are at serious risk if they are so much as sprayed with water¹…
Although the water quality in Rio is appallingly bad, the city is not alone in having pollution issues. Many other coastal – and indeed inland – cities suffer from similar problems due to insufficient sewerage treatment facilities and a lack of garbage disposal services. Most of this pollution ends up in the ocean, where it is extremely harmful to sensitive marine ecosystems. If we are to save our planet and prevent the unnecessary destruction of the environment, it is important for wealthier countries to help exterminate the pollution problem in cities such as Rio de Janeiro.