RIO DE JANEIRO — Health experts in Brazil
have a word of advice for the Olympic
marathon swimmers, sailors and
windsurfers competing in Rio de Janeiro's
picture-postcard waters next month: Keep
your mouth closed.
Despite the government's promises seven
years ago to stem the waste that fouls Rio's
expansive Guanabara Bay and the city's
fabled ocean beaches, officials acknowledge
that their efforts to treat raw sewage and
scoop up household garbage have fallen far
In fact, environmentalists and scientists say
Rio's waters are much more contaminated
than previously thought.
Recent tests by government and independent
scientists revealed a veritable petri dish of
pathogens in many of the city's waters, from
rota viruses that can cause diarrhea and
vomiting to drug-resistant "super bacteria"
that can be fatal to people with weakened
immune systems.
Researchers at the Federal University of Rio
also found serious contamination at the
upscale beaches of Ipanema and Leblon,
where many of the half-million Olympic
spectators are expected to frolic between
sporting events.
"Foreign athletes will literally be swimming
in human crap, and they risk getting sick
from all those microorganisms," said Dr.
Daniel Becker, a local pediatrician who
works in poor neighborhoods. "It's sad, but
also worrisome."
Government officials and the International
Olympic Committee acknowledge that, in
many places, the city's waters are filthy. But
they say the areas where athletes will
compete — like the waters off Copacabana
Beach, where swimmers will race — meet
World Health Organization safety standards.
Even some venues with higher levels of
human waste, like Guanabara Bay, present
only minimal risk because athletes sailing or
windsurfing in them will have limited
contact with potential contamination, they
Still, Olympic officials concede that their
efforts have not addressed a fundamental
problem: Much of the sewage and trash
produced by the region's 12 million
inhabitants continues to flow untreated into
Rio's waters.
"Our biggest plague, our biggest
environmental problem, is basic sanitation,"
said Andrea Correa, the top environmental
official in the state of Rio de Janeiro. "The
Olympics has woken people up to the
Foreign athletes preparing for the Games
have long expressed concern that
waterborne illnesses could thwart their
Olympic dreams. An investigation by The
Associated Press last year recorded disease-
causing viruses in some tests that were 1.7
million times the level of what would be
considered hazardous on a Southern
California beach.
"We just have to keep our mouths closed
when the water sprays up," said Afrodite
Zegers, 24, a member of the Dutch sailing
team, which has been practicing in
Guanabara Bay.
Some athletes here for the Games and other
competitions have been felled by
gastrointestinal illness, including members
of the Spanish and Austrian sailing teams.
During a surfing competition here last year,
about a quarter of the participants were
sidelined by nausea and diarrhea, organizers
said . Officials have been grappling with a welter
of challenges as they scramble for the
opening ceremony on Aug. 5. The Zika virus
epidemic has dampened foreign ticket sales,
crime is soaring, and the federal government
has been paralyzed by the impeachment
proceedings against Brazil's president, Dilma
Last month, the acting governor of Rio de
Janeiro, Francisco Dornelles, declared a state
of emergency, claiming that a lack of money
threatened "a total collapse in public
security, health, education, transport and
environmental management."
Still, Olympic organizers say the sports
venues are nearly complete, and the federal
government has provided emergency funds
to the state. Many athletes expect the Games
will proceed without serious complications.
The city's contaminated waterways,
however, are another matter.
"It's disgusting," said Nigel Cochrane, a coach
for the Spanish women's sailing team.
"We're very concerned."
For many, the sewage crisis is emblematic of
the corruption and mismanagement that
have long hobbled Latin America's largest
Since the 1990s, Rio officials claim to have
spent billions of dollars on sewage treatment
systems, but few are functioning.
In its 2009 bid for the Games, Brazil pledged
to spend $4 billion to clean up 80 percent of
the sewage that flows untreated into the bay.
In the end, the state government spent just
$170 million, citing a budget crisis, officials
Most of the money in the state's sanitation
budget has been spent on trash-collecting
boats and portable berms to stop the sludge
and debris that flow into the bay.
Critics say they are cosmetic measures.
"They can try to block big items like sofas
and dead bodies, but these rivers are pure
sludge, so the bacteria and viruses are going
to just pass through," said Stelberto Soares, a
municipal engineer who has spent three
decades addressing the city's sanitation
Mr. Soares said he laughed when he heard
officials promise to tackle the sewage
problem before the Games.
An earlier, multibillion-dollar effort
financed by international donors yielded a
network of 35 sewage treatment facilities,
500 miles of conduits and 85 pumps, he said.
When he last checked, only three of the
pumps and two of those treatment plants
were still working; the rest had been
abandoned and mostly vandalized, he said.
Asked what had happened, he threw up his
hands. "In Brazil, they say sanitation doesn't
get votes."
Romario Monteiro, 45, a second-generation
fisherman who has spent a lifetime plying
Guanabara Bay, recalls when the waters
were crystalline and the fish were plentiful.
Now his net often yields more trash than
fish, including television sets, dead dogs and
the occasional dolphin killed by ingesting
plastic bags.
The odor is overwhelming.
"This is nothing," Mr. da Silva said. "In
summer, it's unbearable."
Every few days, the State Environmental
Institute tests bacteria levels in the city's
waters and posts them in a color-coded
graph online . Many showcase beaches are
consistently rated "unsuitable" for human
That includes Flamengo, the bayside cove
where the Olympic boating competitions will
take place, and the iconic beaches that front
some of Rio's wealthiest neighborhoods.
Residents still throng the beaches on the
weekend, but Renata Picão, a microbiologist
at the Federal University of Rio, has refused
to step foot in the water since she began
sampling it three years ago.
Ms. Picão documents high levels of drug-
resistant microbes at five of the city's best-
known beaches. The Oswaldo Cruz
Foundation, a government-run lab, found
super bacteria in the Rodrigo de Freitas
lagoon, a body of water ringed by high-
priced condominiums.
She said the pathogens, potentially fatal to
those with compromised immunities,
probably come from local hospitals that
discharge untreated waste. Although super
bacteria might not pose a threat to healthy
people, the organisms can remain in the
body for years, and wreak havoc if a person
becomes sick with other ailments.
Ms. Picão and other health experts say that
unlike residents, who have been repeatedly
exposed to sewage-borne pathogens, foreign
visitors are more likely to fall ill after
contact with contaminated waters.
And she is not optimistic about future
cleanup efforts.
"If they couldn't clean things up for the
Olympics, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,
I'm afraid it might never happen," she said.


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