Smog and Mirrors: Rio's Air is 'Dirtier and Deadlier' Than Promised

Josh Luckenbaugh | August 1, 2016
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While much has been made of Rio's highly contaminated waters ahead of the Olympic Games, not a lot has been said of the city's significant air pollution issues. And according to a report released by Reuters on Monday, the air is far "dirtier and deadlier" than the Brazilian government promised it would be in its official bid for the Games. 

Rio has long had problems meeting the World Health Organization's limits for dangerous air pollutants known as particulate matter (PM), mostly on account of the high volumes of vehicles clogging up the city's roads and emitting exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. Paulo Sadivia, a pathologist at the University of Sao Paulo, estimated that almost 5,400 people have died from exposure to PM, which has been linked to such things as heart disease and lung cancer. 

"This is definitely not 'Olympic air'," Saldiva told Reuters. "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."

Data collected by Rio's environmental protection agency Inea revealed that from 2010 to 2014, metropolitan Rio annually averaged a PM 10 (meaning the particulate matter has a diameter of 10 microns or less) rating of 52 per cubic meter of air, well above the WHO limit of 20. According to Reuters' report, this would mean that Rio has the dirtiest air of any Olympic host since the introduction of PM 10 ratings, with the exception of the smog-ridden Games in Beijing back in 2008.

In coordination with Sadivia and other scientists, Reuters measured PM levels throughout Rio, as detailed below:

Reuters conducted 22 separate hour-long tests for PM 2.5 levels: in front of the Olympic Park and the Olympic Village, next to the beach volleyball arena on Copacabana beach and just outside the Olympic stadium where track athletes will compete.

There are no standards for one-hour tests for PM 2.5 – instead the WHO sets a 24-hour average level of 25 and an annual average of 10. But Saldiva and other experts said the results show athletes, fans and Rio residents are exposed to high levels of PM 2.5.

The highest readings were at the Olympic stadium – with a peak of 65 PM 2.5 during a June 30 test taken mid-morning, the same time of day athletes will compete.

The Copacabana site had a 57 reading the same day, while the Olympic Village where athletes will sleep hit a maximum of 32.

Crowd-sourced database Numbeo also posted concerningly high air pollution levels, both of PM 10 and PM 2.5. And with the area currently in the midst of dry season, it would be difficult to imagine air pollution levels going down during the Olympics. 

Tania Braga, head of sustainability and legacy for the Rio Olympics organizing committee, urged against panic, telling Reuters, "When you talk about air quality, it cannot be judged on PM data alone, and Rio's other pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide are comfortably within WHO's limits."

Even if those claims are true, PM is considered the most dangerous of all air pollutants, and thus high quantities of it cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, it appears that's exactly what the Brazilian government has done, putting hundreds of thousands of athletes and spectators at risk.