The problems mount in Rio
Human waste still being dumped into Games venues
Health experts in Brazil have a word of advice for the Olympic marathon swimmers, sailors and windsurfers competing in Rio de Janeiro’s picture-postcard waters next month: Keep your mouth closed.
Despite the government’s promises seven years ago to stem the waste that fouls Rio’s expansive Guanabara Bay and the city’s fabled ocean beaches, officials acknowledge their efforts to treat raw sewage and scoop up household garbage have fallen far short.
In fact, environmentalists and scientists say Rio’s waters
are much more contaminated than previously thought.
Recent tests by government and independent scientists revealed a veritable petri dish of pathogens in many of the city’s waters.
The contamination ranged from rotaviruses that can cause diarrhea and vomiting to drug-resistant “super bacteria” that can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.
Researchers at the Federal University of Rio also found serious contamination at the upscale beaches of Ipanema and Leblon, where many of the half-million Olympic spectators are expected to frolic between sporting events.
“Foreign athletes will literally be swimming in human crap, and they risk getting sick from all those microorganisms,” said Dr. Daniel Becker, a local pediatrician who works in poor neighbourhoods. “It’s sad, but also worrisome.” Government officials and the International Olympic Committee acknowledge that, in many places, the city’s waters are filthy.
But they say the areas where athletes will compete — like the waters off Copacabana Beach, where swimmers will race — meet World Health Organization safety standards.
Even some venues with higher levels of human waste, like Guanabara Bay, present only minimal risk because athletes sailing or windsurfing in them will have limited contact with potential contamination, they add.
Still, Olympic officials concede their efforts have not addressed a fundamental problem: Much of the sewage and trash produced by the region’s 12 million inhabitants continues to flow untreated into Rio’s waters.
An investigation by The Associated Press last year recorded disease-causing viruses in some tests that were 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.
“We just have to keep our mouths closed when the water sprays up,” said Afrodite Zegers, 24, a member of the Dutch sailing team, which has been practising in Guanabara Bay.
Some athletes here for the Games and other competitions have been felled by gastrointestinal illness, including members of the Spanish and Austrian sailing teams.
During a surfing competition here last year, about a quarter of the participants were sidelined by nausea and diarrhea, organizers said.
Officials have been grappling with a welter of challenges as they scramble for the opening ceremony on Aug. 5.
The Zika virus epidemic has dampened foreign ticket sales, crime is soaring, and the federal government has been paralyzed by the impeachment proceedings against Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff.
Still, Olympic organizers say the sports venues are nearly complete, and the federal government has provided emergency funds to the state.
Many athletes expect the Games will proceed without serious complications.
The city’s contaminated waterways, however, are another matter.
“It’s disgusting,” said Nigel Cochrane, a coach for the Spanish women’s sailing team.
In its 2009 bid for the games, Brazil pledged to spend $4 billion to clean up 80 per cent of the sewage that flows untreated into the bay. In the end, the state government spent just $170 million, citing a budget crisis, officials said.
“They can try to block big items like sofas and dead bodies, but these rivers are pure sludge, so the bacteria and viruses are going to just pass through,” said Stelberto Soares, a municipal engineer who has spent three decades addressing the city’s sanitation crisis.
Soares said he laughed when he heard officials promise to tackle the sewage problem before the Games.
An earlier, multibillion-dollar effort financed by international donors yielded a network of 35 sewage treatment facilities, 500 miles of conduits and 85 pumps, he said.
When he last checked, only three of the pumps and two of those treatment plants were still working; the rest had been abandoned and mostly vandalized, he said.
A body floats in the waters of Guanabara Bay, a sailing venue for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Recent tests revealed a veritable petri dish of pathogens in the Rio waters.