Guanabara Bay

Torben Grael
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Brazil Olympic legend sailor says Guanabara Bay ‘looks horrible’

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio de Janeiro has missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to clean polluted Guanabara Bay, the venue for Olympic sailing, Brazil Olympic sailing legend Torben Grael said in a recent interview.

“We always hoped that having a big event like the games would help,” Grael told Canada’s CBC television. “We ourselves put a lot of pressure to make it happen, but unfortunately it didn’t happen when they had money. And now they don’t have money, and so it’s even worse.”

Grael won five Olympic medals in sailing: two gold, a silver and two bronze, matching the record for a Brazilian Olympian. He has sailed for years in Guanabara Bay and hoped the Olympics would prompt a wholesale clean up.

“I don’t think we’re going to see that change now,” Grael said, according to a transcript of the interview given to The Associated Press this week. “It’s part of the way politics administration goes here. Everything grows very quick and very disorganized.”

Brazil is in the middle of its worst recession in decades, and the state of Rio de Janeiro has been described as “broke” by acting governor Francisco Dornelles.

The state is responsible for maintaining the bay, which has been described as an open sewer by many local and foreign sailors.

Rio treats only about half of its sewage, dumping the rest untreated into the water around the city.

A year-long analysis of water quality by the AP has found dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria in Olympic and Paralympic venues for sailing, rowing, canoeing, triathlon and long-distance swimming.

The International Olympic Committee, backed by the World Health Organization, has repeatedly said athletes are not at risk.

“I don’t think you’re going to get sick,” Grael said. “It just looks terrible.”

Many athletes are expected to arrive in Rio in advance to build up immunity. Others will come in just days before, hoping to minimize the impact. Many will take antibiotics, bring bleach to cleanse equipment, and try to minimize contact with the water.

“You know the garbage can slow your boat and that’s not good,” Grael added. “I think they’re going to be careful collecting the garbage in the racing areas, but that’s going to be just for the games and after the games it’s going to be what we know. We thought we could have some change, some legacy there. But it’s not going to happen, unfortunately.”

MORE: Ex-World Sailing CEO says he was fired over Rio’s polluted venue

Timeline of Rio Olympic water testing broken promises

AP
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A timeline of key moments since The Associated Press first reported on contamination of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic waterways:

July 30 – The Associated Press publishes its first story based on data from five months of viral and bacterial testing of Rio’s venues for Olympic water sports. The levels of disease-causing viruses were similar to those found in raw sewage. The medical director of the International Olympic Committee says in response that there are no plans to change venues and that the World Health Organization, which acts in an advisory role for the IOC, has reassured Olympic officials there is “no significant risk of athlete health.”

July 31 – The Rio de Janeiro state government and the state environmental agency blast the AP report as alarmist and say it is unfair to judge Rio’s waters based on viral counts, limits of which are not designated in Brazilian legislation – or most nations. They also question the qualifications of the laboratory where the AP samples were analyzed. David Zee, an oceanography professor at Rio’s state university who has studied pollution in Guanabara Bay for decades and had no part in the AP study, says: “It’s natural that the authorities react saying that `everything is fine,’ but everything is not fine.” He says the AP testing “was done in a trustworthy lab.”

Aug. 1 – WHO tells the AP in an emailed statement that it has now “advised the IOC to widen the scientific base of indicators to include viruses. The risk assessment should be revised accordingly, pending the results of further analysis.” The International Sailing Federation becomes the first to break with the IOC, saying it will carry out its own viral testing of Rio’s waters.

Aug. 2 – IOC reverses course. “The WHO is saying they are recommending viral testing,” IOC’s medical director, Dr. Richard Budgett, tells the AP. “We’ve always said we will follow the expert advice, so we will now be asking the appropriate authorities in Rio to follow the expert advice, which is for viral testing.”

Aug. 4 – Matt Smith, head of World Rowing, says that “together with the WHO and the IOC, we’re going to follow what they say. We will ask that viral testing is done. If there is a problem, we will react. It’s our moral duty.”

Aug. 10 – WHO changes direction, telling the AP in an email that it “will not issue an `official recommendation’ on viral testing.” It says that “viral testing would not help significantly in the measurement and assessment of water quality.” This statement contradicts WHO’s own published studies showing little to no correlation between the levels of bacterial and viral markers in water – meaning that just testing for bacteria alone tells experts little about the amount of disease-causing viruses in recreational waters. Also on this day, the AP learns 13 American rowers became sick with stomach illness at the World Junior Rowing Championship held the previous four days.

Aug. 12 – IOC rules out viral testing of Rio’s waters. Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi says IOC will be sticking to WHO guidelines recommending only bacterial testing. “WHO is very clear that bacterial testing is what should be followed,” Dubi says at a news conference in Rio.

Aug. 14 – WHO again reverses course. In a telephone interview with the AP, Bruce Gordon, WHO’s top water safety expert, says that while bacterial testing is the global standard, “WHO would support additional viral testing to further inform the risk assessment by authorities and to verify and address concerns raised by independent testing. In this case, measuring coliphages and enteric viruses would be advisable.”

Aug. 15 – International Sailing Federation changes its stance. Dr. Nebojsa Nikolic, the federation’s top medical official, tells the AP that “we will certainly not” do viral testing.

Sept. 1 – Carlos Nuzman, head of Rio’s local Olympic organizing committee, tells the AP in an interview that “we will do” viral tests and says work is already underway to understand how best to carry out the viral analysis.

Sept. 16 – The international swimming federation calls for Olympic officials to carry out viral testing in Rio, according to an internal document obtained by the AP. The federation “and its Sports Medicine Committee strongly recommend that viral tests should also be performed,” it says in a letter to Olympic organizers.

Oct. 16 – WHO again changes course, issuing a statement saying it recommends only bacterial testing for Rio’s Olympics. It says there is “a lack of standardized methods and difficulty interpreting results” for routine testing of viruses. Mario Andrada, spokesman for Rio’s Olympic organizing committee, says they consider that to be “the final instructions for Rio 2016” and that viral testing will not be done.

Oct. 24 – WHO, in an emailed statement, says its comment “not recommending `routine’ viral testing is not analogous to WHO recommending that Brazil do nothing and that WHO is unconcerned with viral pathogens in water. … In fact, we have experts engaged on examining the best monitoring protocols and we will be discussing virus testing at an upcoming meeting in Brazil.”

VIDEO: Aerial Rio Olympic Park progress update

New AP test: Rio’s Olympic water consistently contaminated

Rio de Janeiro
AP
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Olympic waters in this city are more widely contaminated by sewage than previously known and pose a greater threat to athletes’ health ahead of next year’s games, according to new results from tests commissioned by The Associated Press.

Expanded analysis of Rio’s waterways shows that high viral and in some cases bacterial counts are found not just along shorelines where raw sewage runs into waterbodies, but far offshore where athletes will compete in sailing, rowing and canoeing.

That means there is no dilution factor in the bay or lagoon where events will take place.

“It’s going to increase the exposure of the people who come into contact with those waters,” said Kristina Mena, a U.S. expert in waterborne viruses. “If we saw those levels here in the United States on beaches, officials would likely close those beaches.”

In July, the AP reported that its first round of tests showed viruses causing stomach and respiratory illnesses and more rarely heart and brain inflammation at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S. or Europe.

The report prompted sports officials to promise they would do their own viral testing. Those pledges took on further urgency in August, after pre-Olympic rowing and sailing events in Rio led to illnesses among athletes nearly double the acceptable limit in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Olympic and World Health Organization officials have flip-flopped on promises to carry out their own viral testing in the wake of the AP’s July report.

At issue are two kinds of testing.

Brazilian, Olympic and WHO officials now say Brazil needs only to conduct testing for bacterial “markers” of pollution to determine water quality. That’s the standard for nations around the globe to monitor waterbodies, mostly because it’s been historically easier and cheaper.

“The health and safety of athletes is always a top priority and there is no doubt that water within the field of play meets the relevant standards,” the Rio 2016 Olympic organizing committee said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Rio 2016 follows the expert advice of the World Health Organization, whose guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments recommend classifying water through a regular program of microbial water quality testing.”

However, in recent years technological advances have made it simpler and less expensive to monitor viral levels, too.

Studies dating back decades have shown little to no correlation between the levels of bacteria pathogens in water, which quickly break down in salty and sunny conditions like those in tropical Brazil, and the presence of viruses, which have been shown to last for months, and in some cases years.

Rio’s waterways, like those of many developing nations, are extremely contaminated because most of the city’s sewage is untreated, flowing into Guanabara Bay, the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon and the famous Copacabana Beach.

Rio won the right to host the Olympics based on a lengthy bid document that promised to clean up the city’s scenic waterways by improving sewage sanitation, a pledge that was intended to be one of the event’s biggest legacies.

Brazilian officials now acknowledge that won’t happen.

The AP’s first published results were based on samples taken along the shores of the lagoon where rowing and canoeing events will be held. Other samples were drawn from the marina where sailors enter the water and in the Copacabana Beach surf, where marathon and triathlon swimming will take place. Ipanema Beach, popular with tourists and where many of the expected 350,000 foreign visitors will take a dip during the games, was also tested.

Since then, the AP expanded its testing to include offshore sampling sites inside Olympic sailing courses in Guanabara Bay and in the middle of the lagoon where rowing and canoeing lanes were located during recent test events.

Not only has the AP testing since August found the waterbodies to be consistently virus-laden throughout, but it also captured a spike in the bacterial fecal coliforms in the lagoon – to over 16 times the amount permitted under Brazilian law.

Athletes have made efforts to avoid falling ill, from bleaching rowing oars to preemptively taking antibiotics, which have no effect on viruses, to simply hosing off their bodies the second they finish competing.

Despite that, athletes at test events in August still fell ill. The World Rowing Federation reported that 6.7 percent of 567 rowers got sick at a junior championship event in Rio. The International Sailing Federation said just over 7 percent of sailors competing at a mid-August Olympic warm-up event in Guanabara Bay fell ill.

By comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum illness rate for swimming is 3.6 percent – which many experts say is too high.

Offshore water samples taken by the AP for the past three months were 30,000 times higher than what is considered alarming in the U.S. and Europe – at a point 600 meters (yards) offshore and within the Sugarloaf sailing race course; at a spot 1,300 meters (yards) off the shore within the Naval School course; and at a point 200 meters from the shoreline in the Olympic lagoon where rowing lanes are located.

The high levels of sewage-linked pathogens found in the offshore sailing courses “show that … there are many, many points where sewage enters the bay,” said Brazilian virologist Fernando Spilki, coordinator of the environmental quality program at Feevale University in southern Brazil, who is conducting monthly tests for the AP.

“These pathogens we’re looking for, especially the viruses, are able to migrate in the currents in a big way,” he said.

VIDEO: Aerial Rio Olympic Park progress update