When the AP first conducted tests on the waterways slated to be used for swimming, rowing, canoeing and sailing events in the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, they found concentrated levels of untreated human waste and disease-causing pathogens. Now, in spite of the Brazilian government's continued promises to clean up their act, further testing has revealed that the extent of the pollution is even worse -- like, a lot worse -- than experts previously thought.
According to the AP's 2013 report, "In the neon green waters around the site of the future Olympic Park, the average fecal pollution rate is 78 times that of the Brazilian government's 'satisfactory' limit — and 195 times the level considered safe in the U.S."
"Nearly 70 percent of Rio's sewage goes untreated," that report explained, "meaning runoff from its many slums and poor neighborhoods drain into waters soon to host some of the world's best athletes."
Pollution in Cunha canal, which flows into Rio's Olympic waterways
The AP's new report, published on Wednesday (Dec. 2), reveals that high levels of bacteria are present further offshore than experts originally imagined it could be, and at levels that pose even greater health risks than they previously realized. Exposure to the levels of fecal bacteria found in the Olympic waterways can cause everything from severe bacterial infections like MRSA to stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, to serious respiratory complications, heart and brain inflammation, cholera and dysentery.
"It's going to increase the exposure of the people who come into contact with those waters," Kristina Mena, a U.S. expert in waterborne viruses, told the AP. "If we saw those levels here in the United States on beaches, officials would likely close those beaches."
Brazil promised to clean up the waterways as part of its Olympic bid and received over $700 million to help clear out the pollution starting in 1992. But according to the AP, "two decades later there's little to show for the more than $700 million spent." They add that "some critics some critics say corruption was largely responsible for the failure," while others claim it was just the result of poor planning.
In addition to all the bacteria, the AP reports that there's also so much household garbage in the water -- including large items like old washing machines and couches -- that experts have warned vessels moving quickly through the water during Olympic events could be at risk of colliding with huge pieces of trash floating below the surface of the water. Massive fish die-offs also occur regularly as a result of the pollution, which means it's not uncommon to see (and smell) tons of dead fish floating alongside the garbage in various waterways.
"There's no way to work in these waters, where you are literally neck deep in feces in some places, and not be afraid of the health effects," Ecology professor Ricardo Freitas told the AP. "Show me the Olympic athlete who's going to have the courage to get into waters like these."