Rio’s Olympic Outdoor Water Venues Are Still Full of Sewage

Rodrigo de Freitas Lake is one of the polluted sites that the Associated Press found unsafe levels of viruses.
Rodrigo de Freitas Lake is one of the polluted sites that the Associated Press found unsafe levels of viruses. Pacific Press / Getty

As the road to the 2016 Rio Olympics winds down, an investigation by the Associated Press found pollution levels that make 2008's worries over Beijing's smog seem quaint. According to the report, marathon swimmers and other outdoor aqua athletes in the next Summer Olympics will be competing in waters contaminated by untreated sewage. 

Brazilian officials claim the waters are safe but have only tested for bacterium. The AP tested for several viruses, including adenoviruses, which cause respiratory infections from a basic cold to bronchitis, diarrhea, and pink eye. In Rodrigo de Freitas Lake — venue for the rowing and canoe sprints — the government had supposedly cleaned up in recent years, but the water ranged from 14 million adenoviruses per liter on the low end, to a stunning 1.7 billion per liter on its high end. For reference, a count of 1,000 adenoviruses per liter on a beach in Southern California would draw alarm from United States officials. 

The situation is of great concern for athletes, some of whom plan to arrive early and train extensively in order to build up immunity against some of the waters' more suspect viruses. Many native Brazilians often grow used to the nation's untreated sewage. Children develop antibodies to combat the free-flowing feces, especially in Rio, where a massive housing and population boom first initiated the water pollution in areas like Guanabara Bay.

Olympic athletes, however, simply don't have that kind of time, and for those spending significant stretches in the water, there are serious risks. Kristina Mena, a U.S. expert in waterborne viruses, projects that across the four venues the AP tested, any athlete who ingests just three teaspoons of infected water — common for marathon swimmers, reasonable in rowing and canoeing — would have a 99 percent chance of infection.

Despite committed financial support in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars from Japan's international cooperation agency, along with a massive investment from the Inter-American Development Bank, plans to clean Brazil's waterways have been met continually with inaction and bureaucratic red tape. Moreover, an Olympic-bid promise to build eight water-treatment facilities has gone mostly forgotten. Just one facility has been built.

Of early-arriving athletes, Austria's sailing team is the first to feel the effects of the sewage-strewn streams. The team has missed many days of practice due to vomiting and diarrhea. Ivan Bulaja, the team's coach, said, "this is by far the worst water quality we've ever seen in our sailing careers."