Rio Olympics Face Dangerous Air Pollution Concerns

With the Summer Olympics set to open this Friday, concerns over Rio’s dangerous levels of air pollution are finally starting to be acknowledged.

2016 Rio Olympics Logo
Image Source: Olympics official website

Amid countless controversies surrounding this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio, another obstacle has been added for athletes and fans to face: dangerous levels of air pollution. The city of Rio pledged cleaner air during its bid to be an Olympic host city back in 2009, but according to new reports, it doesn’t appear this pledge has been carried out.

In collaboration with Brazilian researchers from the University of São Paulo, Reuters has released an air analysis showing that high levels of particulate matter were found in Rio, with the highest levels of dangerous pollution recorded at the Olympic stadium. Although city officials have downplayed the presence of dangerous air pollution, the results from this independent study showed that Rio averaged an annual level of 52 micrograms of coarse particulate matter (PM10) per cubic meter of air, which far surpasses the WHO’s recommended limit of 20 micrograms/cubic meter.

The WHO considers particulate matter to be the most dangerous form of air pollution:

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, (≤ PM10), which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

Since 2008, particulate matter in Rio’s air have consistently been two to three times over this recommended limit of healthy air quality standards.

Air pollution of Rio de Janerio during the Olympics
Image Source: Quartz

While rain can temporarily clean particulate matter and other forms of pollution from the air, Rio is unfortunately in its dry season.

These air pollution concerns are sure to cause complications for competing athletes during the summer games. A study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found increased particulate matter hurts athletic competition outcomes both statistically and competitively. The highest levels of particulate matter were recorded at the Olympic stadium during mid morning, the time of day when track athletes will be competing. Rio will be the second most polluted Olympic host city after Beijing, where the 2008 Summer Olympics faced harsh criticism for its pollution problems.

Rio’s polluted waterways have dominated the Olympic city’s pollution concerns, but little conversation has been directed towards its air. Paulo Saldiva, University of São Paulo pathologist and WHO committee member deemed the city’s air “not Olympic air” along with the following comments: 

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

Air analysis test at the Olympics sites in Rio
A machine tests for PM 2.5 levels in front of 2016 Rio Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 17, 2016. Picture taken June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Thousands die each year as a result of unhealthy air quality in Rio’s metropolitan area and many more are plagued with chronic health problems. Saldiva believes that while improvements to public transportation have been made to curb air pollution, there is little hope for an extended effort in improving the city’s air quality:

“The idea of an Olympic legacy in terms of diminishing air pollution is Utopian. It is unimaginable that a few BRT routes will substantially change the quality of the air. For the Brazilians remaining in Rio after the Olympics have come and gone, there is no clean air legacy.”

The 2016 Rio Olympic Opening Ceremonies kick off this Friday at 9pm Central time on NBC. Will you be watching this year?