The prob­lems mount in Rio

Hu­man waste still be­ing dumped into Games venues

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - AN­DREW JA­COBS RIO DE JANEIRO —

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.

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