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Dirty Water in Rio de Janeiro - Potential Health Risk during the 2016 Summer Olympics

Posted on behalf of the author, Daniel Bator


Athletes competing in next year’s 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) may be swimming and boating in bodies of water containing unhealthy levels of various contaminants. Last month, an analysis by Associated Press (AP) of the water quality surrounding Guanabara Bay, Copacabana Beach, and Rodrigo de Frieitas Lake revealed dangerously high levels of viruses and fecal coliform from human sewage, alarming international experts of the potential risks to individuals participating in aquatic events. This was the first independent comprehensive testing for both viruses and bacteria of Olympic sites in the area. Results from four rounds of testing at each site found high counts of active and infectious adenoviruses, which multiply in the intestine and respiratory tracts in people and can cause explosive diarrhea, vomiting, and respiratory diseases. According to the AP report, the concentrations of human adenoviruses observed were roughly equivalent to those seen in raw sewage. Additionally, AP testing found rotavirus - a similar virus that can cause severe diarrhea - on three separate occasions at Olympic sites.

Waters along Rio’s coastline have long suffered from historic sewage problems. Although population surges and major events like the 2014 FIFA World Cup have brought some economic investments into the region, the development of adequate water sanitation infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with the efflux of daily waste. The Associated Press reports that in many cases, raw waste water runs through open-air ditches to over 50 rivers and streams that feed into Guanabara Bay. As a result, a notable stench emanates from much of the bay and many beaches are off-limits to swimmers. As part of its Olympic bid in 2009, Brazilian officials pledged to cut the flow of pollutants into the bay by 80 percent. Since then, only one of eight promised treatment plants has been built to filter out much of the sewage to prevent household trash from flowing into the bay. Earlier this year, Rio’s state Environment Secretary, Andre Correa, estimated a $3.8 billion investment would be needed to bring effective sewerage to the entire metropolitan area. With the clock winding down, Rio de Janeiro Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao has acknowledged to AP sources that “there’s not going to be enough time” to finish the cleanup ahead of the games.

Brazilian officials have made assurances that the water will be safe for athletes. Prior to the AP’s findings, neither the Brazil government nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) tested for viruses, relying solely on bacteria testing. In response, many water and health experts in the U.S. and Europe have pushed for regulatory agencies to include viral testing in determining water quality because many illnesses from recreational water activities are related to viruses, not bacteria. Dr. Richard Budgett, the medical director of the IOC, had previously confirmed with the Associated Press that all was on track in providing safe competing venues, stating “we’ve had reassurances from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk of athlete health.” However, in a recent statement following the AP report, the World Health Organization suggested the IOC start monitoring for viruses at Rio venues, stating “the risk assessment should be revised accordingly, pending the results of further analyses. The Rio Local Organizing Committee and the IOC are requested to follow WHO recommendations on treatment of household and hospital waste.”

According to the 2016 Olympic Games website, more than 10,000 athletes from over 200 countries will be competing in the games next summer. Of those competing, nearly 1,400 may come in contact with waters contaminated by sewage pollution. After agreeing with the WHO’s request, Dr. Budgett has declared that “[the IOC] will follow the expert advice, so we will now be asking the appropriate authorities in Rio to follow the expert advice which is for viral testing. We have to follow the best expert advice.”

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