The 2016 Summer Olympic Games are set to kick off in just days, and experts are warning they’re going to be a health disaster of epic proportions.
According to a report by The Associated Press, just days ahead of the Olympic Games the waterways of Rio de Janeiro are as filthy as ever, contaminated with raw human sewage teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria, according to a 16-month-long study.
Not only are some 1,400 athletes at risk of getting violently ill in water competitions, but tests indicate that tourists also face potentially serious health risks on the golden beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.
Safety concerns have also plagued the city. Friday, Australia’s cycling team was robbed of their clothing and laptop by brazen thieves during a fire evacuation. And last week, a New Zealand athlete reported that uniformed police officers kidnapped and robbed him at gunpoint.
Now, a survey of the aquatic Olympic and Paralympic venues has revealed consistent and dangerously high levels of viruses from the pollution, a major black eye on Rio’s Olympic project that has set off alarm bells among sailors, rowers and open-water swimmers.
The first results of the study published over a year ago showed viral levels at up to 1.7 million times what would be considered worrisome in the United States or Europe. At those concentrations, swimmers and athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water are almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and more rarely heart and brain inflammation — although whether they actually fall ill depends on a series of factors including the strength of the individual’s immune system.
Since the AP released the initial results last July, athletes have been taking elaborate precautions to prevent illnesses that could potentially knock them out of the competition, including preventatively taking antibiotics, bleaching oars and donning plastic suits and gloves in a bid to limit contact with the water.
But antibiotics combat bacterial infections, not viruses. And the AP investigation found that infectious adenovirus readings — tested with cell cultures and verified with molecular biology protocols — turned up at nearly 90 percent of the test sites over 16 months of testing.
“That’s a very, very, very high percentage,” said Dr. Valerie Harwood, Chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida. “Seeing that level of human pathogenic virus is pretty much unheard of in surface waters in the U.S. You would never, ever see these levels because we treat our waste water. You just would not see this.”
While athletes take precautions, what about the 300,000-500,000 foreigners expected to descend on Rio for the Olympics? Testing at several of the city’s world-famous beaches has shown that in addition to persistently high viral loads, the beaches often have levels of bacterial markers for sewage pollution that would be cause for concern abroad — and sometimes even exceed Rio state’s lax water safety standards.
In light of the AP’s findings, Harwood had one piece of advice for travelers to Rio: “Don’t put your head under water.”
Swimmers who cannot heed that advice stand to ingest water through their mouths and noses and therefore risk “getting violently ill,” she said.
Danger is lurking even in the sand. Samples from the beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema revealed high levels of viruses, which recent studies have suggested can pose a health risk — particularly to babies and small children.
“Both of them have pretty high levels of infectious adenovirus,” said Harwood, adding that the virus could be particularly hazardous to babies and toddlers who play in the sand.
“You know how quickly an infant can get dehydrated and have to go to the hospital,” she added. “That’s the scariest point to me.”
Dr. Fernando Spilki, the virologist and coordinator of the molecular microbiology laboratory at Feevale University in southern Brazil whom AP commissioned to conduct the water tests, says the survey revealed no appreciable improvement in Rio’s blighted waters — despite cleanup promises stretching back decades.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen throughout all this time is that there is a variation in the levels of contamination, but it fluctuates much more as a result of climactic conditions than due to any measures that may have been taken to try to remove this contamination,” said Spilki, one of Brazil’s most respected virologists.
The most contaminated points are the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where Olympic rowing will take place, and the Gloria Marina, the starting point for the sailing races. In March, 2015, sampling at the Lagoon revealed an astounding 1.73 billion adenoviruses per liter; this June, adenovirus readings were lower but still hair-raising at 248 million adenoviruses per liter. By comparison, in California, viral readings in the thousands per liter are enough to set off alarm bells.
Despite a project aimed at preventing raw sewage from flowing directly into the Gloria Marina through storm drains, the waters remain just as contaminated. The first sampling there, in March, 2015, showed over 26 million adenoviruses per liter; this June, over 37 million adenoviruses per liter were detected.
While local authorities including Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes have acknowledged the failure of the city’s water cleanup efforts, calling it a “lost chance” and a “shame,” Olympic officials continue to insist Rio’s waterways will be safe for athletes and visitors. The local organizing committee did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though it has previously said bacterial testing conducted by Rio state authorities has shown the aquatic venues to be within state guidelines.
The crux of the issue lies in the different types of testing used to determine the health and safety of recreational waters.
Bacterial tests measure levels of coliforms — different types of bacteria that tend not to cause illnesses themselves but are indicators of the presence of other, potentially harmful sewage-borne pathogens such as other bacteria, viruses and protozoa that can cause cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid, among other diseases. Bacterial tests are the worldwide standard because they’re cheap and easy.
But there’s a growing consensus that they’re not ideal for all climates, as bacteria break down quickly in tropical weather and salty marine waters. In contrast, viruses have been shown to survive for weeks, months or even years — meaning that in tropical Rio low bacterial markers can be completely out of step with high virus levels.
That disparity was borne out in the AP’s testing. For instance, in June, 2016, the levels of fecal coliforms in water samples from Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches were extremely low, with just 31 and 85 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters, respectively. But still, both had alarming readings for rotavirus, the main cause of gastroenteritis globally, with 7.22 million rotaviruses per liter detected in the waters of Copacabana, while 32.7 million rotaviruses per liter were found in the waters of Ipanema Beach.
The testing also revealed alarming spikes in fecal coliform levels — the very measure the state government uses to determine the safety of Rio’s recreational waters.
“If these were the reported values in the United States, let’s say in California, there is definitely an indication of a problem,” said Dr. Kristina Mena, a waterborne virus expert at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
According to California’s bacterial tests standards, 400 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters is the upper limit for a beach to be considered safe for swimming. AP’s tests revealed that Copacabana Beach, where the marathon and triathlon swimming are to be held and thousands of tourists are likely to take a dip, exceeded California’s limit five times over 13 months of testing.
Nearby Ipanema Beach, which is not playing host to any Olympic sports but is among the city’s most popular tourist spots, exceeded California standards five times over 12 months, once spiking to nearly 50 times what would be permitted in California. One of two testing spots along the beach in the Olympic hub neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca once hit more than 60 times that limit over the five months testing was conducted there.
“If we had exceedances that consistently were in the thousands like I’m seeing here, there would be a high likelihood that that beach would be put on our list of impaired water bodies,” said Rik Rasmussen, manager of surface water quality standards at California’s State Water Board. That would lead to water quality warnings posted on the beach, possible beach closure, and the development of a program to root out the source of the contamination, he said.
The beaches even violate Rio state’s own standards, which are much less stringent than those in California, many other U.S. states and beach-loving countries such as Australia and New Zealand. In Rio, beaches are considered unfit if bacterial tests turn up more than 2,500 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters — more than six times higher than the upper limit in California. But Copacabana and Ipanema even violated those much higher limits on three separate occasions. The state environmental agency, INEA, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Rasmussen acknowledged that the higher thresholds might make sense in Rio, where sewage pollution has been a perennial problem, meaning that locals are regularly exposed to the pathogens lurking in raw waste from an early age and therefore build up immunities. But visitors are unlikely to have such immunities, putting them at risk for illnesses.
After the AP’s initial report on the findings of the study in July of last year, the Olympics’ adviser on health matters, the World Health Organization, said it would carry out its own viral testing in Rio’s Olympic waterways. The agency later flip-flopped, finally concluding that bacterial tests alone would suffice.
Athletes who have trained years for a chance at Olympic glory have resigned themselves to competing in the filth.
“There’s been a lot of talk about how dirty the water is and all the viruses,” said Finnish team sailor Noora Ruskola. “I’m mentally prepared for this. Some days the water is totally OK, and some days there are bad days.”
However, tourists are unlikely to realize the dangers: Water quality warning signs used to dot showcase beaches, but they’re no longer there. Now, a brief item on the weather page of the local paper lists which beaches the state environmental agency has deemed safe for swimming.
Most beach-going visitors are likely in the same situation as Raul Onetto, a 52-year-old bank executive from Uruguay recently soaking up the sun on Copacabana Beach.
When asked whether he knew that the bacterial levels sometimes exceeded the norms in other countries and could indicate problems, he expressed disbelief.
“The water looks beautiful. I didn’t know it was dirty,” said Onetto. “If it’s dirty, the public should know it. I came 2,000 kilometers to be on a beach.”
In Rio, the main tourist gateway to the country, a centuries-long sewage problem that was part of Brazil’s colonial legacy has spiked in recent decades in tandem with the rural exodus that saw the metropolitan area nearly double in size since 1970.
Even in the city’s wealthy areas, sewage treatment has lagged dramatically behind, with so-called “black tongues” of fetid, sewage-filled water common even on the tony Ipanema and Leblon Beaches. The lagoons in the fast-growing Barra da Tijuca region have been filled with so much sewage dumped by nearby glass-and-steel residential towers that vast islands of sludge emerge from the filthy waters during low tide. That lagoon system, which hugs the Olympic Park and Athletes’ Village, regularly sees massive pollution-related fish die-offs and emits an eye-watering sulfuric stench.
Promises to clean up Rio’s waterways stretch back decades, with a succession of governors setting firm dates for a cleanup and repeatedly pushing them back. In the city’s 2009 Olympic bid document, authorities pledged the games would “regenerate Rio’s magnificent waterways.” A promised billion-dollar investment in cleanup programs was meant to be among the games’ most important legacies.
Once more, the lofty promises have ended in failure.
Just over a month before the games, biologist Mario Moscatelli spent more than two hours flying over Rio in a helicopter, as he’s done on a monthly basis for the past 20 years.
Viewed from above, Rio’s sewage problem is as starkly visible as on the spreadsheets of the AP analysis: Rivers are tar-black; the lagoons near the Olympic Park bloom with fluorescent green algae that thrives amid sewage; fishermen’s wooden boats sink into thick sludge in the Guanabara Bay; surfers paddle amid a giant brown stain that contrasts with the azure of the surrounding waters.
“It’s been decades and I see no improvement,” laments Moscatelli, an activist who’s the most visible face of the fight to clean up Rio’s waterways. “The Guanabara Bay has been transformed into a latrine … and unfortunately Rio de Janeiro missed the opportunity, maybe the last big opportunity” to clean it up.
The Associated Press contributed to this article
Main Street says
The kind of nation where a few in business and politics live in mansions while the rest of the nation lives in a shack. Kind of what folks like Hillary want for the U.S..
Expat Tom says
The Rio Olympics are a living testament to the corruption of not only the Olympic committee but also the World Cup. Any idiot with computer and an internet connect could have learned, as Idid while working in Brazil 2 years ago, the following facts:
1) If you google the “world’s 50 most dangerous cities” you learn the 11 are in Brazil
2) Brazil has one of the lowest levels of English proficiency in the world…the international language of travel.
3) The hotel rates in Brazil are among the highest in the world and the quality is among the lowest.
4) The infrastructure is among the worst in the world making Brazil much more like a third world country than an emerging nation
5) The Brazilian government is one of the most corrupt in the world to wit the Petrobras scandal and the impeachment of hte president.
6) By any measure Brazil is a terrible choice for any international event. Unless things have changes in the last 18 months, you can’t even find a reliable ATM machine.
So, given these fact than any 2 year old could have found who and why was Brazil awarded the Olympic Games? DUH!!! Think about it.
Arden Mast-Ingle says
What is Wrong with Brazil ?? One can understand this situation being in Africa… but Brazil always seemed so good to look at in photos and movies… many years ago though.! . but what has happened to the people living in all this ? Cant they get together and improve and clean up their country ? How could Brazil be accepted or nominated to host the Olympics this year ? Its beyond belief !!
H. L. Rivera. says
There are crooks everywhere, Since $ talks, there is no doubt that someone gave a whole lot of money to the OLYMPIC COMMITEE, ALL UNDER THE TABLE.
And the deal was done; but some one should suit the hell out of the Olympic Committee, and hit them on their Check Book, and perhaps they might learn something today.
Jean Hamann says
This is exactly how we get all of the diseases here in the US.
Hahahaha please give me a break.. you’re saying like if US is the cleanest place on earth.
The real disease in America is FAT people…Obesity has continued to grow within the US. Two out of every three Americans are considered to be overweight or obese. More than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese. During the early 21st century, America often contained the highest percentage of obese people in the world. And you guys are criticising about Rio’s cleanness.
VERY WELL SAID.
Fred Reo says
I predict,There will be NO olympics in Rio.
LIZ GLOSSER says
I hope you’re right…games are NOT as important as people
What wrong with this country?!!! The world is no longer living in the stone age. Why don’t the citizens demand that their leaders clean up their water, stop dumping raw sewage into the ocean, rivers and streams! You know why they wont? They have no voice! It is the result of corrupt progressive socialist ideas! And…some Americans want this for America?!!!!
The Olympic Selection Committee must have gotten some extravagant kickbacks to have selected Rio over other cities at the time! I have never read so much negativity about an Olympic venue as I have about this one. We can only hope that none of the athletes or visitors come down with some kind of deadly virus. In addition, the facilities for the athletes were poorly built and things like bathrooms are not working properly. Of course not to mention the rampant crime infested areas.
Perhaps the OSC should consider a permanent venue for at least the Summer Olympics that is maintained, inspected and funded by participating countries so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. Shameful!
Grace Alexander says
And perhaps the Olympic Selection Committee people should be the FIRST to subject themselves and try the waters that are so horribly contaminated and unsafe before agreeing to having this site for the innocent Olympic performers.To consent to this venue is a most horrid decision and I wonder what favors and/or financial or other benefits members of this Committee have received or will receive? Such Committee members, in my estimation have no right to even be on this Committee by putting the lives of the Olympic performers in jeopardy.
The OSC has a bad reputation. Greece and China managed to do OK despite serious issues. But neither had Zika. Both had pollution issues but sewage? No. Safe to go No way. Also crime in Rio It was a bad choice exceeded only by having the next World Cup in Qatar one of the hottest countries in the world
Mel Goldstein says
Obviously the media does not have anything positive to write about in Rio and the Olympics therefore all the negative comments… I have been to Rio four times in the last 3 months with no problems and I am presently in Rio as I write this comment The Brazilian people are a very proud people and they will put on an outstanding event. Does Brazil have political problems, perhaps, but look at our choices for President of the United States…We no choice….The Director for the CDC was on the Mike and Mike show the other day… Zika while a threat, if the proper precautions are taken you have only a 1 in 5 chance of getting the Zika virus … True if you are pregnant you should not come to Rio… However, Florida has the Zika virus as well, are we reporting that no one should travel to Disneyland taking their kids and families there or anywhere in Florida..No I do not think so… Might hurt their economy ..As for the water, the Director said we have worse water in the US that Open Water Swimmers and swimmers are swimming in… For those who don’t know, there is an annual swim around Manhattan every year that you properly should take typhoid shots before swimming… No one is reporting that the water around Manhattan is pristine……Those who participate and those who will come to see the Olympics are in for a wonderful experience.
Are you kidding me? Your comment is absurd. I liv in Brazil, and have for the past two years. “Perhaps” there are political problems?? There’s no “perhaps” about it. This is one of the single most corrupt governments in the world; thieves, less than a high school education, zero experience, ignorance in strategic future planning, lack of knowledge and experience, etc.
As far as the country as a whole, it’s overall pretty disgusting. There’s trash and human feces littering the streets, air pollution that immediately irritates eyes and throat, neglected parks, horribly poor and unreliable infrastructure, paved streets that equal a backwoods dirt road in in the U.S., sidewalks that are crumbling, building falling apart, dangerously corrupt and very poorly trained police, terrible education and on and on.
As for Rio itself: It’s a putrid city full of criminals. The mayor is a crook who doesn’t care about anything but his money, the city council doesn’t do anything but steal, the police are part of the criminal scene, and the city is horribly, horribly disgusting, possibly the worst major city in Brazil.
The claim that Brazil is an “emerging” nation is only an illusion on the surface, at best. The truth is that the country is on the edge of disaster, which will happen soon. It doesn’t compare in the least to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and most European countries. The good people of Brazil are great, but the country is a disgusting, putrid, mind-blowing mess. Rio was an awful choice and in th end will most likely go down as one of the very worst Olympics in modern history. And there no excuse for this. None whatsoever.
Lisa Larson says
What the underlying question should be , why was Rio even considered in the first place to bring the 2016 Olympics there? I mean come on, anyone with half a brain cell knows that Rio is not only disgusting as far as cleanliness goes ,but it’s also very dangerous for foreigners to go there.
fra conn says
going to rio in person is STUPID ……….
We should pull our athletes from these Olympics. Why endanger their health and their lives for a medal. It’s not worth it!
Think of the thousands of visitors who could become infected and become really ill or even die.
Justin W says
The International Olympic Committee needs to fire everyone who was part of choosing Rio de Janeiro for this year’s Olympics. Before a city is selected to host the games a group should tour the city unannounced and check for things such as pollution, crime and infrastructure. Every Olympics there always seems to be some drama in whether the venues will be ready for the games. It sounds like this is finally going to be the year where the “seat of your pants” technique fails in a big way.
Rio’s water pollution problem should have been apparent to any selection process that would have been on the level. Instead of giving the city the games on the promise they would clean up the pollution, the Olympics site selection committee should have told them to clean up the pollution and then apply to host the games.
Randall Frost says
Randall Frost says
It is in the hands of the athletes. If they refuse to go and compete, the games will not take place. If they sub with inferior or non qualified athletes, the competition would not be of Olympic caliber. If the athletes decide they want to go, then if they get sick or in the future they come up with incurable ailments, then it is their greed to blame.
It is a shame, that the Rio games have come to this. I applaud those athletes that have refused to go. The only thing that remains to be asked, is that the Olympic committee members, take a swim in the waters that they are asking the athletes to compete on. If they refuse, that should tell you something. Cancel the Rio Games. Incompetence won these games.
Rio is the pits! You will need your own personal security to go. If it were me, I wouldn’t get off of the plane until I put on a 3 mil thick full body suit. I once spent time in Colombia for the work I was involved in. Had to travel from Barraquilla to Santa Marta and then to Cartagena checking installation of equipment. Colombia is clean. I did not see the slums of Rio. Regardless, I still came back with intestinal parasites no one could identify. If you enjoy uncontrollable intestinal rumblings, go for it.
Remember growing up with “The Girl From Ipanema”? Well, now that I read this article, she might not have been as desirable as we all thought. Could have smelled like sewage? ROFLMAO!!
Smells like somebody got paid off big time to hold the Summer Games there!
Dr. Clifford N. Alford says
Black Elderberry, Oreganol P73, Coconut Oil and Tea Tree Oil all kill viruses as well as many bacterial and fungal problems so if you have to go to someplace with such problems then go prepared. You can also get spray forms of the Oreganol and Tea Tree Oil for surface decontamination as well as to take internally and to use as a mouth and throat spray. Unlike pharmaceuticals, which are useless against viruses and are poisons as well, the natural world has got you covered if you will only use it.
female tax payor says
This is best effort of rest of Globe outside America folks….think of foreign mentality & skills Dems want to flood USA with in Globalization… it only gets worse from this showing of Brazil doing THEIR BEST … rest of world is worse…if you can’t see lying Dems are puppets helping Obama’s global alliance, open border BS drag America into the “outside our border” gutter ??? Surely everyone can see how hard all these brainwashed DEMS are working to tear down our border completely and engulf America in the giant stinkhole of inhumane conditions & inhumane thinking our founders fought so hard to insulate us from so we could live humanly & think humanely & prosper humanly in our isolated little place and yes from our isolated prosperous place reach out to teach others humanity from a protected, strong, and little but mighty WITHIN. Send aid & education out as our means permitted. That is America. But to open the floodgate, let huge outside in to trample.That is end of America. Doesn’t matter what Hillary promises to give all Latino’s Latin America relatives if they vote for her ..Once they break Hillory’s piñata open, the citizens too late will regret inviting everyone to a free for all where there was barely enough tootsy rolls inside for immediate citizens… which they will be trampled and robbed of before touching.. End of a good thing that was sending aid outside… End, End, End …
female tax payor says
Dr Clifford, I use tea tree oil etc. here for many skin abnormalities by dapping just a tiny cue tip end of the essential oil on a specific minute little spot, which usually then go away & save me worry, costly time consuming trips to doc. who all want big bucks per to one second “freeze” every abnormal & leave you with a big bill to blister etc… but tea tree just a tiny dab from a cue tip on skin stinks long range, permeates… so to me a its a private thing you dab a speck on when you got time alone and before going back in public wash off. Suggesting all olympians spray themselves totally down with strong smelling essential oils the whole time in Brazil is unreasonable and off point don’t you think. Especially for Americans who have no natural immunity to third world bugs. Fine with me if US pulls ours out. I think its wrong to send our finest athletes to regions where all Americans are handicapped by intolerance to toxins in the basics like shower water. Let alone death trap faulty electrical & hazards galore in their quarters where they are supposed to sleep??? And rampant crime in & out. They are being victimized! Heaven forbid they survive that to be bitten alive by mosquitos which this IS height of mosquito season in Brazil & bring the deadliest of Brazil back to US…You couldn’t have planned spreading third world epidemics to civilized better….Bring ours HOME
I guess every cloud has a silver lining. Thinking about all those lucky Ruskies excluded by doping allegations who will not attend to get bitten to death by the lethal mossies, terminated by bandits and kidnapping and not poisoned by brazilian effluent.