Not a Gold Medal Performance

After all the medals and triumph and glory and interminable commercial sponsorship breaks, the 2016 Summer Olympics are finally over. And while NBC focused a great deal of attention on prepackaged and heartwarming stories of perseverance and dedication, print news media covered some of the more alarming aspects of Rio de Janeiro being thrust onto a world stage—namely, the amount of pollution present.

Much has been said about the raw sewage and debris that was continually deposited in the bay hosting rowing and open-water swimming events, with media commentators aghast at floating couches, diapers, human waste and even dead bodies found floating. Indeed, given that the Brazilian government was scheduled to develop water and waste treatment plants prior to the Olympics, but reneged because of a severe economic downturn, the water conditions were a visible reminder of Brazil’s unchecked growth and lack of environmental regulations.

Still, experts are more concerned with what can’t be seen—namely, the air quality in and around Rio.

“A lot of attention has been paid to Rio’s water pollution, but far more people die because of air pollution than the water,” said Paulo Saldiva, a University of Sao Paulo pathologist. “You are not obligated to drink water from Guanabara Bay, but you must breathe Rio’s air.”

According to data compiled by the World Health Organization, Rio’s air has consistently been three times the acceptable limit, and is the dirtiest Olympic site air—save for the Beijing Olympics in 2008—since the organization started tracking air quality in the 1980s.

The high pollution level is attributable to the massive influx of automobile pollution in and around the city; more than two million cars travel the roads every day. In addition, makeshift factories continually crop up, with little regulatory oversight regarding air pollution and waste to stop owners from polluting.

To alleviate the problems, officials are counting on public transportation systems, in hopes of removing cars that contribute three quarters of the current air pollution from the roadways. City officials have increased routes and have extended subway lines, while replacing smaller buses with larger ones. The thinking: larger buses can carry more people than a fleet of smaller buses, thus emitting less fumes. To this end, the city has retired 750 smaller buses, and hopes this will begin to turn the tide toward cleaner air.