Rio’s Polluted Waters: Olympics Spotlight Opportunity to Clean Up!

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By Alex Sargent, Staff Writer for Save The Water™ | September 17, 2015

From August 5-21, 2016, athletes and fans from around the world will flock to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil for the Summer Olympics. Over the past century, these games have brought the world together to celebrate good sportsmanship, cooperation and hard work. But the eyes and cameras of the world have turned to Rio a little early, spotlighting Rio’s incredibly polluted waterways.

Scientific Study Indicates Human Waste in Olympic Venues in Rio

On July 30, the Associated Press (AP) released a study about water quality at Rio’s Olympic venues. The report detailed significant human waste pollution in venues for rowing, triathlon, and sailing as well as the infection risks that the pollution carries.1

The study, conducted by virologist Fernando Spilki from Feevale University in southern Brazil, tested for rotavirus.1 Rotavirus is the most common cause of stomach flu (gastroenteritis).2 The study also tested for three different strains of adenoviruses, each of which acts as a signpost for human waste in water sources.1

These tests found that the water in Rio contains between 14 million and 1.7 billion adenoviruses per liter. According to Kristina Mena, an expert in water quality and associate professor of public health at the University of Texas, athletes would have a 99 percent chance of rotavirus infection after consuming just 3 teaspoons of water.1 According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who contract the virus can exhibit symptoms ranging from fever and dehydration to vomiting and diarrhea for 3 to 8 days.2

Previous Olympic Host Cities Also Shared Spotlight for Water Pollution

While the recent concerns surrounding the Rio Olympics may be the most notable case to date, it isn’t the first. Previous Olympic host cities have faced criticism for water contamination. In the months leading up to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, local residents raised concerns about waste runoff ending up in drinking water sources.3 A Reuters report from January 2014 cited concerns from Yulia Naberezhnaya, a spokeswoman for the Russian Geographical Society. She stated that rainwater flowing through the increased waste caused by the Olympics would pick up toxic substances, carrying those toxins into the Mzymta River. The river serves as a primary water source for many residents of Sochi. The report also stated that Naberezhnaya was harassed by government officials for her work.3

International Olympic Committee (IOC) Ignores Rio Water Pollution Risks

Given the IOC’s track record of ignoring environmental concerns generally, it shouldn’t be surprising that they have largely avoided addressing concerns about water pollution in Rio, despite risks to the athletes.4 After reviewing the AP’s report, the IOC’s medical director, Dr. Richard Budgett responded that organizers should follow the standard World Health Organization (WHO) procedure.1 That procedure requires only testing for bacteria to determine whether the water is safe for athletes.4

Dr. Budgett tried to explain away the concern. He said, “We’ve had reassurances from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk to athlete health.”1 And when asked whether IOC officials would swim in the water themselves to prove its safety, Nawal El Moutawakel, chief inspector for the IOC, laughed and sarcastically retorted that, “We will [all] jump in together.”4

Opportunity under the Press’s Disinfecting Spotlight on Polluted Waters in Rio de Janeiro

It’s impossible to argue that the water in Rio is safe to swim in. But what remains to be seen is whether people will use this chance to argue for broader measures to preserve waterways in Brazil. The Olympics’ publicity creates an enormous amount of publicity for the host city, for good or bad. The Brazilian government has a unique opportunity to use the spotlight pointed at their country to motivate positive change. But, with the Olympics just a year away, officials would need to acknowledge the gravity of the situation soon if they want to take any steps to clean up Rio’s waters.


  1. Brad Brooks and Jenny Barchfield. July 30, 2015. “AP Investigation: Olympic Teams to Swim, Boat in Rio’s Filth.” The Big Story. Associated Press.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 12, 2014. “Clinical Information.”
  3. Thomas Grove. January 17, 2014. “OLYMPICS-Sochi Residents Blame Games for Ecological Damage.” Reuters.
  4. Matt Bonesteel. August 13, 2015. “IOC Won’t Test Rio’s Filthy Water for Viruses before Olympics.” Washington Post.
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