Rio’s Major Pollution Problem In 31 Shocking Photos

Published August 3, 2016
Updated May 18, 2018

“ATHLETES WILL BE LITERALLY SWIMMING IN HUMAN CRAP,” local pediatrician Dr. Daniel Becker just told The New York Times, referring to the Olympians who will soon be competing in Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously polluted Guanabara Bay.

Doll Eyes Trash

Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesTrash floats in Rio De Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay.

Nearly seven years ago, when the Brazilian port city first won its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the world wondered whether Rio’s infamous pollution problem would be taken care of by the Games’ start. Sadly, with opening ceremony just days away, we now have our answer.

Although Brazil pledged back in 2009 to make a $4 billion effort to eradicate 80 percent of the 8,200 liters of sewage that reach Guanabara Bay every second (that’s about 50 bath tubs’ worth), only $170 million has been spent — and it shows:

Polluted Banks
Garbage floats in the Cunha canal, which flows into Guanabara Bay.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Dead Fish Mountains
Tons of dead fish float on the waters of the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

Boy Canal
A boy looks for items to recycle along the Cunha canal.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Dog Skull
Two scissor crabs stay beside a dog skull at the mangrove area of Guanabara Bay.ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/GettyImages

Couch Trash
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Boy Collecting Trash
A boy reaches for a ball along a polluted canal in the Mare favela community complex. The Mare complex is one of the largest favela complexes in Rio and is challenged by violence, pollution, and poverty.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Dead Fish On Beach
VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Sticks Trash In Water
YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Tire Trash
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Trash Pile
Trash piles up near a barrier meant to prevent it from flowing downstream in the Cunha canal.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Dirty Slum Haircut
A man receives a haircut near the remains of demolished homes in the Metro Mangueira favela.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Drain Trash
Raw sewage drains from an occupied building in the Metro-Mangueira favela.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tires Sludge
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Doll Head
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Decrepit Favela
Kids play soccer by open sewage amid the rubble of destroyed homes in the Metro-Mangueira favela, located approximately 750 meters from Maracana stadium, the site of the Olympic Games opening ceremonies. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Washing Items
A Metro-Mangueira favela resident washes kitchen items with a small hose amid the rubble of the community's destroyed homes.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Dead Fish Trash
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Trash Dump
Trash lines the shores of the Cunha canal.CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

Trash Bird
VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Drain Pipe Trash
An abandoned drainage pipe sits on the edge of Guanabara Bay.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Water Trash Tennis Racket
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Water Sludge
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Dead Fish
Municipal workers pick up dead fish floating on the waters of the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

Polluted Stream
A stream of polluted water at the Favela da Mare shantytown complex.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Trash Overpass
A boy looks for items to recycle along the Cunha canal.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Bottles Cans
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Birds On Pipe
Birds sit on a barrier meant to block garbage from flowing downstream along the Cunha canal.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Collecting Trash Boats
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Dead Fish Leaves
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Water Trash Sculpture
A sculpture made by students and teachers of the Fine Arts School with rubbish removed from Guanabara Bay.VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

What's truly scary, however, is what you can't see in the photos. The waters of Guanabara Bay are filled with vomit-inducing rotaviruses as well as literally deadly superbacteria.

All in all, as an infamous test conducted by the Associated Press last year discovered, the bay contains virus levels 1.7 million times higher than what would be considered hazardous in the waters of, say, California.

“We just have to keep our mouths closed when the water sprays up,” Afrodite Zegers, a member of the Dutch sailing team, told the New York Times.

With little else to be done at this point, some Olympians, including some members of the sailing teams from both Spain and Austria, have already come down with gastrointestinal illnesses.

And it doesn't look like the efforts that have been made will do much to change that. As longtime municipal engineer Stelberto Soares illustrated to the New York Times, “They can try to block big items like sofas and dead bodies, but these rivers are pure sludge, so the bacteria and viruses are going to just pass through."


Next, step inside the most polluted city in the world and see just how bad the pollution in China has become.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.