The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Water at Rio venues remains disgusting and could make Olympians sick

Pollution floats in Guanabara Bay, site of sailing events for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

With the Rio de Janeiro Olympics a little over a year away, an investigation has shown that not a single venue is safe because of extreme water pollution that endangers their health and possibly that of spectators.

Pollution from raw sewage remains high in the waters in which swimmers, rowers, canoeists, sailors and triathletes will compete and an Associated Press investigation found dangerously high levels of both viruses and bacteria. Some athletes who have been training in Rio have become ill with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea and the first independent tests for both bacteria and viruses showed that the issue of what to do about the problem is now beyond critical.

To win the Olympic bid, Brazilian officials promised to clean up its waters, but they now say they cannot keep that pledge. Fish still cover beaches and a stench hangs in the air. Nearly 1,400 athletes will sail in water near Marina da Gloria, swim just off Copacabana beach and canoe and row on Rodrigo de Freitas Lake and they are “almost certain to come into contact with disease-causing viruses that in some tests measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach,” the AP story says.

Instead, the test results found high counts of active and infectious human adenoviruses, which multiply in the intestinal and respiratory tracts of people. These are viruses that are known to cause respiratory and digestive illnesses, including explosive diarrhea and vomiting, but can also lead to more serious heart, brain and other diseases.
The concentrations of the viruses in all tests were roughly equivalent to that seen in raw sewage — even at one of the least-polluted areas tested, the Copacabana Beach, where marathon and triathlon swimming will take place and where many of the expected 350,000 foreign tourists may take a dip.
“Everybody runs the risk of infection in these polluted waters,” said Dr. Carlos Terra, a hepatologist and head of a Rio-based association of doctors specializing in the research and treatment of liver diseases.

Austrian sailor David Hussl told the AP that he and his teammates are being careful, washing their faces with bottled water when they are splashed and showering when they come ashore. And Hussl has still gotten sick because viruses can enter the body through the mouth, eyes, any orifice or cut.

“I’ve had high temperatures and problems with my stomach,” he said. “It’s always one day completely in bed and then usually not sailing for two or three days.”

Humans’ staggering effect on Earth

“If our species had started with just two people at the time of the earliest agricultural practices some 10,000 years ago, and increased by 1 percent per year, today humanity would be a solid ball of flesh many thousand light years in diameter, and expanding with a radial velocity that, neglecting relativity, would be many times faster than the speed of light.” —Gabor Zovanyi Sprawling Mexico City, Mexico, population 20 million, density 24,600/mile (63,700/square kilometer), rolls across the landscape, displacing every scrap of natural habitat; © Pablo Lopez Luz (Pablo Lopez Luz)