Olympic Valor and Viruses

Aug. 3, 2016

The Olympic Games kicked off last week in Rio de Janeiro. Along with all of the anthems, flag waving, and fanfare, many of us in the water industry were reminded of why we do the work that we do: clean water is of fundamental importance.

Members of the elite group of international athletes, who have trained for years to qualify and participate in the Olympic Games, have risked their health to do so. For, not only are they facing possible exposure to the Zika virus transferred by mosquitoes, those participating in water sports—from water polo and diving, to swimming and sailing—will knowingly be exposed to a myriad of viruses through Rio’s sewer-tainted water.

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Health officials issued stern warnings. If athletes ingest just three teaspoons of water, they will almost certainly become infected with viruses that can cause severe stomach and respiratory illnesses. In fact, the water near Rio is so polluted from the outlet of untreated sewage that athletes and tourists have been told that any exposure is dangerous. One microbiologist urged tourists not to put their heads under water—at all.

A study commissioned last year by the Associated Press revealed viral levels up to 1.7 million times the level that would be considered concerning in the US or Europe. USA Today reports that a sampling taken from the Lagoon found 258 million adenoviruses per liter. Samples taken at Gloria Marina showed 37 million per liter. To put that into perspective, in California, viral readings in the thousands per liter would be alarming.

But, perhaps more disturbing than statistics is the view from above the city. The New York Times reports, “Rivers are tar-black; the lagoons near the Olympic Park bloom with fluorescent green algae that thrives amid sewage; fishermen’s wooden boats sink into thick sludge in the Guanabara Bay; surfers paddle amid a giant brown stain that contrasts with the azure of the surrounding waters.”

“Our biggest plague, our biggest environmental problem, is basic sanitation,” says Andrea Correa, the top environmental official in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

In its 2009 bid document for the Olympics, Brazilian authorities promised a 4-billion dollar investment in cleanup programs to “regenerate Rio’s magnificent waterways.” Those promises have been left unfulfilled. To date, the government has put only $170 million toward its water cleanup efforts.

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Of the staggering number of viruses present, Dr. Valerie Harwood, chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida told USA Today, “That’s a very, very, very high percentage. Seeing that level of human pathogenic virus is pretty much unheard of in surface waters in the US. You would never, ever see these levels because we treat our wastewater. You just would not see this.”

Rio’s unfortunate circumstances offer us a poignant reminder of just how important wastewater treatment and water infrastructure are for the health and safety of our communities. While I believe that there’s plenty of work to be done to improve US policies and processes, the comparison makes me grateful for both the careful engineering that goes into our treatment systems and the people that work to keep our water safe. A heartfelt thank you.
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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