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Olympic Athletes Are About to Sail Through a Toxic Bay of Shit

A new documentary, “Toxic Guanabara,” unravels Brazil’s complicated relationship with its most iconic bay.

by Sarah Emerson
Aug 5 2016, 4:37pm

Guanabara Bay shoreline. Image: Figura Media

One of the first things Olympic Games tourists will notice in Rio de Janeiro is the toxic vista of Guanabara Bay. It's the official site of the competition's sailing races, but local residents know it as the country's unofficial sewage dump.

An estimated 70 percent of the coastal city's trash—waste from 12 million people—flows untreated into Guanabara Bay from 55 dying, ecologically degraded rivers. As part of its bid to host the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro's government promised to cleanup the polluted waterway, which now overflows with garbage, chemicals, and human excrement. But come August, environmental surveys reported viral and bacterial levels so high, that ingesting three teaspoons of water could cause brain inflammation, respiratory failure, and heart illnesses.

Concerned for the health of visitors and athletes, the World Health Organization issued a warning in July about the Bay's potentially dangerous water quality. In it, they advised:

"It is suggested that all athletes should cover cuts and grazes with waterproof plasters prior to exposure, try to avoid swallowing the water, wash/shower as soon as possible after exposure and, as far as possible, minimise their time in the water and avoid going in the water after heavy rainfall if possible."

For several decades, Guanabara Bay has suffered the brunt of rampant development, industrialization, population growth, and unfettered pollution. In 2000, more than 1,300 tons of oil leaked into the bay from a pipeline owned by Petrobras. Scientists suspected it would take 10 years for the area's ecosystems to completely recover.

Since then, one local biologist, a man named Mario Moscatelli, has been the bay's most outspoken advocate. In a new, three-part documentary series, Brazilian production company, Figura Media, reveals the complex and intimate relationship Brazilians have with this once vibrant ecosystem. Part one of the miniseries, "Toxic Guanabara," follows the efforts of Moscatelli as he navigates the environmental and political hurdles leading up to the Olympics.

Moscatelli has led several grassroots-funded environmental restoration and cleanup projects, in some cases, returning areas to 95 percent of their original state. But with little support from the state government, his improvements around Guanabara Bay quickly degraded.

"Brazilian authorities knew the region's enormous environmental liabilities and committed themselves to fighting them, exclusively with an eye toward hosting the Games," Moscatelli said at a press conference in April.

But once Rio de Janeiro was officially nominated as the host of the 2016 Olympics, he added, officials "simply did practically nothing about that."

Perhaps the most important issue addressed in "Toxic Guanabara" is the question asked by so many locals: Why did it take the pressure of the Olympic Games to clean up their home?

"The water quality is shit because the sewage flushes in untreated. We all know that. No local would swim in it because we know we would get a disease," local skateboard instructor, Alex Batista, recently told The Guardian.

More than half a million tourists will experience a small, polluted taste of Brazil, but that's nothing compared to what millions of residents breathe, consume, and wade through on a daily basis. As the government scrambles to clean up the city piecemeal, one can't help but wonder how long their efforts will last after the ceremonies have ended.

And if one of the world's largest celebrations isn't enough to make environmental progress, will anything ever be?