Health concerns loom in Rio ahead of 2016 Olympics

With open arms, Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro, a place that elicits the sound of samba, the image of beautiful people and the elation of Carnival. It’s no wonder the city was chosen to be the host of two of the world’s biggest sporting events, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Juliana Barbassa is a journalist who was born in Rio and authored the book “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.” Barbassa spoke to about the city she loves and said while Rio may be the perfect landscape for a postcard, it would be a different story if you could smell it.  Her book details the many struggles that Rio faces as it enters the world’s spotlight.

In less than a year, Rio has to be ready to host the Olympics and Barbassa told that she believes the stadiums and arenas will be ready for the events, but some of the social promises that were made are being pushed to the wayside.

“The biggest social legacy of the Olympics was supposed to be the urbanization of the favelas,” she said. Favelas are low-income neighborhoods were residents built their own homes that are plagued with substandard living and poverty. The promise to improve the living conditions of the favelas has already been scrapped by the city’s mayor, Barbassa said.

“The mayor ran with this as his platform and the program was never funded. If this were to have happened it would have affected a great number of people,” she said.

A part of this urbanization that stretches beyond the favelas actually begins at the feet of Christ at the peak of the Corcovado mountain. The waterways that start here are clean and fresh but when they end at the bay, it’s a different story. In her book, Barbassa talks about the horrid conditions of the water that is “tainted with fecal bacteria.” The city had promised to clean up the bay and plant trees as part of revitalization project, but even with the pressure of the Olympics and the available money, a lot of these projects are running late, or haven’t even started. She fears that once the games are over, the impetus to clean these waters will be gone.

The sewage system in Rio is heavily dilapidated. Barbassa said that only a third of waste is sent to treatment plants, while the rest is flushed away in the city’s waterways. Beachgoers in the United States are accustomed to checking for the threat of riptides that could makes swimming dangerous, while in Rio they check the papers to see if the water is clean enough to swim in.

“The main danger for people when they are swimming in contaminated waters is if they swallow it, or if it gets into their nose or open wounds,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburg, told Once the contaminated waters enters a person’s system, they become susceptible to gastrointestinal diseases like dysentery or typhoid fever that can result in vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.

Since this has been the reality in Rio for decades, Barbassa says that the health risks posed is “not acute, but chronic.” This is a problem that Brazilians have come to expect and learned to cope with, she said. They drink bottled water and boil water that they use day-to-day.

“One of the things that grabs my attention and infuriates me is that a lot of money has been put into the system and nothing happens,” Barbassa said.

“Brazil’s tax burden is the same level as Germany’s, around 36 percent. So the problem isn’t a lack of money,” she added.

Additionally, in 1992 after the U.N. environmental conference in Rio, $760 million was sent to the city to help build waste treatment plants. The problem was, the plants were built but they were never connected to the system of pipes, essentially rendering the buildings functionless. Barbassa blames political corruption and mismanagement.

Already, the dangerous health conditions and the Games have crossed paths. In August, 13 members of the U.S. rowing team came down with stomach illnesses at a trial run for next year’s Olympics. Team doctors pointed fingers at the conditions of the lake they were rowing in. Barbassa is concerned about the affect the pollution will have on the games, given that many of the events are water-based. Athletes and guests alike have the potential of getting sick, Barbassa said. She relayed the story of her wedding in Rio when sewage leaked into the water system of her building days before the event. She and everyone who was staying with her had gotten sick. Barbassa added that not only are rivers, bays and beaches potentially dangerous, but the poor infrastructure below Rio’s streets pose a threat to spectators as well.

Barbassa isn't looking to cause concern and steer people away from heading to Rio and enjoying the festivities, but she is hoping officials can finally deliver on the promises that they have made and make Rio a safe and healthy place for locals and visitors alike. reached out to the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee but has not received a response at the time of the publishing of this article.

For more information on Juliana Barbassa, click here to visit her website.