contaminated Rio waters

    Published: February 9, 2016

    Rio Waters Badly Contaminated

    Olympic athletes at risk

    When Rio de Janeiro won the bid for the 2016 Olympic games, Brazil promised to extensive improvements to the city’s sewage sanitation system. Water testing conducted by the Associated Press reveals just how little has actually been accomplished—and raises questions about safety for athletes in the game’s many water sports.

    AP tests began in July of 2015, and the findings were grim. Testing revealed levels of viruses associated with raw sewage in Guanabara Bay at levels up to 1.7 million times higher than what “would be considered highly alarming in the US or Europe.” That’s not 1.7 million times more than would be acceptable—it’s 1.7 million times higher than would trigger immediate action.

    The results prompted international alarm, and assurances from Brazil that water venues would be safe by game time. Additional AP tests in December, however, found not only were shoreline levels of viral agents unchanged, the problem extends far out into the bay, where Olympic sailing contests are to be held.

    Brazil, the World Health Organization, and Olympic officials currently say Brazil is only required to conduct tests for bacterial contamination, which to be fair is standard internationally. However, as the AP notes, bacteria break down quickly in salty, sunny environments. Viruses associated with raw sewage can survive the same conditions for months, if not years. And while AP bacterial tests were generally lower than their viral counterparts, they nonetheless still found spikes of unsafe fecal bacteria levels close to the shoreline.

    Kristina Mena, associate professor of public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and an expert on waterborne viruses, calls the waters of Guanabara Bay, Ipanema Beach, and Copacabana Beach an “extreme environment.” She asserts none of the venues are safe for swimmers or sailors—whether athletes or tourists.

    But this is the Olympics, of course, so events will continue even if it means athletes risking their health competing in what, from a pathogen standpoint, amounts to a viral soup. Mena estimates athletes who swallow just three tablespoons of the water will have a 99 percent chance of viral infection.

    Infection, in turn, could cause vomiting, diarrhea, and respiratory problems. Serious heart and disease problems are also possible. In August, a German sailor participating in an Olympic test event contracted a form of flesh-eating bacteria. He survived, fortunately.

    If Guanabara Bay were a domestic house, we’d recommend installing a point of entry water filter with UV protection, but the scope of the Rio problem is far beyond any easy fix.

    The problem stems from Rio’s substandard sanitation system, a not uncommon problem in many areas of the developing world. Even if Brazil completes renovations to sewage points near the Marina da Gloria—the focal point for the watersport venues—the problem will persist as dozens of other locations continue to dump hundreds of millions of liters of raw sewage into the bay every day.

    Every nation hopes their athletes return from the Olympic Games with medals and glory. This year, let’s hope they return healthy as well. And if you’re planning on seeing the games firsthand, consider this an earnest warning. Please don’t go in the water.

    Concerned about your own water quality? Consult with a Pelican water specialist today by calling 844-210-4677.