‘Super bacteria’ still contaminates Olympic venues in Rio de Janiero

Water pollution continues to plague Rio de Janeiro, the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Credit: Rodrigo Soldon 2/Flickr)

Deadly, drug-resistant “super bacteria” are likely still present in waters that will host swimming, canoe and rowing events at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The Olympics has helped push the city’s waste management problem into the spotlight, but pollution is a public health concern that has plagued Rio’s inhabitants for many years with little done to resolve the problem.

The superbugs were first detected in 2013 and 2014 in two unpublished studies seen by Reuters. The first report claims microbes were detected at five of Rio’s major beaches, including Copacabana beach, which is scheduled to host marathon swimming, cycling and triathlon.

Improper sanitation has contaminated the city of 10 million, according to the study’s leading author, Renata Picao from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“These bacteria should not be present in these waters. They should not be present in the sea,” Picao told Reuters.

The other study, which will be published next month by the American Society for Microbiology, found the genes of super bacteria in the heart of Rio and in a river that empties into Guanabara Bay, as well as the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, which will host canoe sprint and rowing events for the Olympics and rowing events for the Paralympics.

Although the reports draw on data from several years ago, not much has been done to improve wastewater management systems in Brazil’s largest cities. If anything, the super bacteria is more prevalent than ever since it naturally spreads by infecting other microbes, Valerie Harwood, an expert in recreational water contamination and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, told Reuters.

Rio’s inadequate wastewater management systems have already led to sewage-related illnesses that disproportionately plague the city’s poor, including gastrointestinal and respiratory problems and Hepatitis A. But the super bacteria drawing concern over the Olympic Games is potentially fatal and can cause urinary, gastrointestinal, pulmonary and bloodstream infections, and even meningitis. The bacteria is resistant to antibiotics and believed to cause death in 50 percent of patients, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When making its bid for the Olympics in 2009, Rio de Janeiro’s proposition was that the Games would help the city and country to combat water pollution and that 80 percent of the sewage contaminating local bodies of water would be treated by 2016. For the first time, Brazil had the money, the deadline and a global audience to address a critical public health problem.

But government and Olympic committee officials have long dropped the pretense that the targets for reducing pollution would be met.

“It’s not going to happen because there was not enough commitment, funds and energy,” Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada told the ESPN program “Outside the Lines. “However, we finally got something that the bay has been missing for generations, which is public will for the cleaning.”

Now, after years of international pressure and with the Olympics just weeks away, many have started to wonder what it will take to clean up Brazil’s waterways. The Dutch environment ministry and some of the country’s leading waste experts have stepped in and proposed a variety of innovative solutions under the name Clean Urban Delta Initiative, but the project has yet to take off. The reason? It all boils down to money, and for now, the reality is that recession-racked Brazil doesn’t have the funds to pay for it.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com