Contaminated Water Plagues Rio – In lead-up to Olympics, concerns over water quality come to a boil

The sight of Rio’s beautiful backdrops is quickly becoming the only antidote for stomaching its polluted water. Photo: Lemos

With the Summer Olympics set to take over Brazil in August of this year, issues surrounding water pollution along some of Rio’s beaches and waterways are being cast into the media spotlight. For years, surfers and beachgoers who frequent Rio’s gorgeous shorelines have complained of falling ill due to poor water quality. Prior to the start of the Rio Pro last year, the WSL was forced to cancel their backup venue due to pollution issues.

In a scathing report published by the Associated Press—who referenced a pair of water-quality studies of the area taken over the past year, including samples taken from Guanabara Bay, home to many Olympic events—high viral levels from untreated sewage were found, leading many countries and their athletes to protest to governing bodies.

So just how polluted are these beaches and waterways?  “We’re talking about an extreme environment, where the pollution is so high that exposure is imminent and the chance of infection very likely,” said Kristina Mena, a waterborne virus expert and professor of public health at the University of Texas. “Those virus levels are widespread. It’s not just along the shoreline, but it’s elsewhere in the water. Therefore, it’s going to increase the exposure of the people who come into contact with those waters.”

Last year, Kelly Slater said that he believed the contamination level of Rio’s water made him sick.

Experts have likened swimming in the waters where the samples were pulled to swimming in raw sewage, resulting in “an extreme environment, where the pollution is so high that exposure is imminent and the chance of infection very likely.”

It’s important to note that the water quality study referenced by the AP did not take samples from Barra Da Tijuca, the primary venue for the World Tour. However, there’s a nearby lagoon that’s reportedly highly polluted, and, given the right conditions, the lagoon has been known to spill into the lineup. Surfers in the area are understandably frustrated by the poor infrastructure and the government’s ineffectiveness in addressing the problem.

“Rio’s water pollution cannot go on like this,” Teco Padaratz, an event organizer, told the AP. “Surfers love Rio. No one wants to leave. All they want is clean water.” City officials from Rio have stated that just half of the city’s wastewater flowing into the bay is treated.

We asked the WSL if it tests water conditions prior to starting competitions, and did not get a response. However, the WSL’s Dave Prodan told the AP last August, “I don’t recall another incident, at least in the last 10 years, where we’ve had an issue with water pollution.”

“If there is an issue, whether that’s sharks in South Africa or water pollution in Brazil, the sport pivots off the recommendations of the surfers,” Prodan said. “If the issue involves the health and safety of our athletes, we don’t have them out there.”

According to SURFER contributor and Sao Paulo local Junior Faria, the issues surrounding water pollution in Rio are coming to a boil. Amid the picturesque and popular lineup of São Conrado, raw sewage is said to routinely flow into the lineup.

“The last time I was there to surf, sometime around mid-2015, I couldn’t even stand on the beach to check the waves. The smell was terrible, and a thick fog rose from the waves,” said Faria. “It looked like something out of a science-fiction movie. It’s such a beautiful place, in the middle of this huge city, but it’s totally ruined by pollution.”