Pollution Solution For Rio?

Will Rio be able to clean up their water in time for the Olympics on August 5th 2016?

Guanabara Bay is an oceanic bay located in Southeast Brazil in the state of Rio de Janeiro. It is the venue for many of the water based events for the 2016 Olympic Games due to start on 5th August when 1,600 athletes will compete there and hundreds more during the subsequent Paralympics. It is notorious for its pollution. It was referred to as “a latrine” by a Brazilian biologist and environmentalist, back in May last year and while Rio 2016 organisers insist that the water is safe and that the health of the athletes is top priority, others have serious doubts.

What does this pollution consist of?

  • Some of the items floating in the bay, reported by Olympic sailors during their practice events are, mattresses, cars, washing machines, trees, tables, televisions, couches, chairs and even dead dogs, horses and cats. One Brazilian sailor, an Olympic medallist said he had seen human bodies on four separate occasions.
  • A five-month investigation conducted by the Associated Press, found the waters “chronically contaminated” and revealed dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage. Contaminated water and sewage regularly flows out of nearby favelas into the bay.
  • About 18 garbage-choked rivers feed into Guanabara Bay while the other 30 or so rivers have been declared “dead”. An inadequate sewage system and untreated human.

How could this pollution affect the athletes? 

  • Independent testing in both Guanabara Bay and also Rio’s Olympic venues for rowing, canoeing, open-water swimming and triathlon shows disease-causing viruses linked to human sewage at levels thousands of times higher than what would be considered alarming in the US or Europe.
  • Experts have commented that athletes will be competing in the viral equivalent of raw sewage with certain exposure to dangerous health risks. Many sailors have described the conditions as “sailing in a toilet”.

The viruses found in Guanabara Bay can cause stomach and respiratory ailments and even hepatitis A, which could knock an athlete out of the competition. There is danger of ear infections, conjunctivitis and mycosis, not to mention the dangers of colliding with debris.

During the last few years the athletes have been getting a taste of Guanabara in the series of test events. Here are just a few of the hazards they have encountered.

  • One Brazilian sailor slammed into what he believes was a sofa. It capsized his vessel and sent his crew tumbling into the water.
  • A Danish sailor, who had just edged into first place in his race, came to a dead stop when a large plastic bag wrapped itself round his centreboard. The entire fleet passed him by and all he could do was sit and watch them.
  • There have been reports of competitors going into the water and coming out with red spots on their bodies. They have no idea what it was in the water that caused them.
  • A third of the US rowing team fell ill with severe stomach problems after competing in the nearby Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.
  • Last August a video was posted online showing raw sewage pumping into Marina da Gloria where the Olympic sailors keep their boats.
  • Other sailors have experienced nausea and stomach cramps, fever and diarrhoea during races, seriously affecting their results. One British sailor said they had been advised to drink Coke afterwards if they swallowed any water. “We’re just trying not to fall ill while we’re here”, he said.

The athletes are taking serious preventative measures including early and prolonged exposure to the water, not reusing water bottles and gargling with mouthwash while training. Some are also taking probiotic supplements and fish oil to strengthen the gut.

What is being done?

  • When Rio was awarded the Olympics, in 2009, the country’s Olympic organizers promised International Olympic Committee officials that eighty per cent of the bay’s pollution would be removed in time for the games. But, earlier this year, the Brazilian government announced that the bay would not be cleaned up to the extent that the I.O.C. had demanded. Still, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, promised that the pollution would not pose any threat or health hazards to the sailing teams, and that staff would be present during the games to remove trash and waste to avoid disrupting competition.
  • Rio’s government claim that they have earmarked eleven million dollars to install seventeen eco-barriers to help prevent floating garbage from entering the bay’s race area. These will be complemented by eco-boats which will collect garbage that accumulates around the barriers. A monitoring system using satellite pictures will then assist the eco-boats by pinpointing problem areas.
  • Brazilian universities and research facilities have been requisitioned to develop a plan to combat the pollution problem, but no specific details have been published.
  • Competitors and environmentalists have been protesting over the past year and during the winter protestors took to the bay in a seven-mile parade of schooners, canoes, kayaks and fishing boats to raise awareness of Rio’s failure to clean up the pollution as promised.
  • Rio organizers are meeting weekly with government authorities to monitor the problem and improve conditions.
  • The US Olympic Committee and US Sailing hired medical experts to take water samples from three locations in Guanabara Bay in early 2014. They confirmed the polluted character of the water and agreed to advise competitors on how best to remain healthy while sailing, including immunizations for hepatitis A and C as well as prevention and treatment for diarrhoea.


With Brazil suffering its worst recession for decades, you might wonder why it is hosting an event as great as the summer Olympics and, assuming it still goes ahead, what will it do to the economy of the country? You might also wonder if a less polluted area could have been found for the water-based competitions. The International Sailing Federation has threatened to move the events out of the bay, but it seems very unlikely at this late stage.

Several countries have come up with ideas for cleaning up the pollution – but the answer is always the same – cash-strapped Brazil cannot pay for it.

As for what the competitors feel about it – this is best summed up by a quote to the Times by one of the athletes. He was determined not to worry too much about health risks. “It’s in the back of your mind, that’s for sure, but at the end of the day, you’re so focused on racing that you’ll do anything for the gold medal”.

Sailors are used to life not being perfect!

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