As the world’s best athletes get ready to compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics, the real competition might not be with one another but with Rio’s pestilential problem: the city’s waterways are swarming with sewage, human feces, viruses, and bacteria. Brazilian officials insist that Rio’s water will be safe for swimming and boating by the time the 2016 games start, but a full clean up seems unlikely considering how cash-strapped the government is. So how bad is it? Is Rio’s water contamination just another example of pre-Olympic, media handwringing – like air pollution in Beijing? According to the Guardian, athletes at the Rio Olympics are almost certain to come into contact with disease causing viruses. As Fusion aptly suggested, Brazil’s Summer Games could be “the shi**iest yet.”
70% of the world is covered with water, but how much of that water is poisoned and contaminated? Even the most pristine looking rivers and lakes have sinister undercurrents, noxious chemicals and deadly heavy metals. Flint, Michigan made headlines when it was uncovered that 25,000 children had been exposed to lead contamination from the city’s water supply. In a cost-saving measure, Flint switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River. Kids broke out in rashes and scabies. Others stopped growing, or became irritable and aggressive. The effects of Flint’s lead poisoning disaster will be felt for years. Here are 10 of the world’s most poisoned bodies of water.
10. The Blue Lagoon – Derbyshire, UK
It looks inviting … a serene, Caribbean blue body of water and the perfect place to swim on a hot summer day. But don’t let the name fool you. It isn’t a lagoon; it’s a disused, polluted quarry. Famous for its striking blue tint, the Harpur Hill quarry in Derbyshire contains water as toxic as ammonia with a pH level of 11.3, almost as lethal as bleach. The water can cause eye, skin, and stomach irritations as well as fungal infections. While the quarry looks like a tropical beach, it contains rusty car wrecks, dead animals, rubbish, and excrement. Still, many people ignored the dangers and flocked to the toxic site. In 2013, the “Blue Lagoon” was dyed black in an attempt to deter people from using it as a recreational site. “It’s not pretty any more,” said Ms. Thomas, a local businesswoman. “They no longer think they’re on holiday in the Bahamas.”
9. Newtown Creek – New York
Existing in a sort of no-man’s wasteland between Brooklyn and Queens, Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted bodies of water in North America. During the height of New York City’s industrial revolution, over 50 waste-producing facilities lined the bank of the 3.8-mile river, disgorging all manner of toxic spew and sewage into the water – oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and fertilizer and glue factories used the creek as their personal toilet. Clean up efforts have improved the waterway, and fish, birds, and plants are slowly returning. Nevertheless, Newtown Creek still gets flushed with 3 million gallons of raw sewage every time it rains.
8. Niger Delta – Nigeria
Over 30 million people in communities in the oil-rich region of the Niger delta have been affected by pollution. According to a UN study, millions of barrels have been spilled in the Niger delta over the years, and over two-thirds of the sites tested were highly contaminated by petroleum and its byproducts. Today, people in the delta are more conscious of the environmental horror that they have to live with than they were 20 years ago; they don’t trust governments, or oil companies. Despite a 2011 Environmental Program report suggesting oil companies spend $1 billion cleaning up the area, little is actually being done to restore the region.
7. The King River – Australia
The King River, located on the West Coast of Tasmania, is anything but kingly. In the 1880s, large-scale mining operations began in the Queen River, a major tributary of the King River, and acid drainage and ore-washing residue (tailings) polluted the King River. The pollution was made worse in 1992, when the King River was dammed above its confluence with the Queen River to generate hydroelectric power. According to some estimates, 9.4 million tons of mine waste is deposited in the river. Considered the most poisoned river in Australia, the polluted sediment of the King River has led to deforestation. Temperate rainforest trees die when they come into contact with river’s acidic water.
6. Horseshoe Lake – California
Twenty years ago the trees surrounding Horseshoe Lake started to die. Was it the result of an airborne toxic event? An insect plague? A rare blight? Located in California’s Mammoth Mountains, and part of Lassen Volcanic National Park, at first glance Horseshoe Lake is the epitome of serene beauty, a place for swimming, canoeing, and summer picnics. But despite its homespun name, Horseshoe Lake is more like Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th, as the area is plagued with an unseen horror. Horseshoe Lake’s subterranean chambers emit excessively dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, and the soil in the area contains 95 times the normal levels of carbon monoxide. Toxic fumes not only killed the plants and trees surrounding the lake, but in 2006, three campers died from carbon monoxide poisoning when they sheltered in a nearby cave.
5. Citarum River – West Java, Indonesia
In 2013, the environmental organization Green Cross Switzerland named the Citarum River one of the world’s top 10 most polluted places. The longest and largest river in West Java looks more like a dump site than a river; the river is choked with so much trash and rubbish (there’s no trash collection or modern plumbing in West Java) that you can barely see the water, let alone navigate a boat through the toxic debris. In 2014, the West Java Deputy Governor said 71 companies were involved in poisoning and polluting the Citarum River, but that number seems doctored considering 500 factories line the waterway. In 2008, a $500 million loan was approved for cleaning and revitalizing the Citarum River.
4. Rio Tinto – Spain
Originating in the mountains of Andalusia, the Rio Tinto (Red River) is considered the birthplace of the Copper Age and Bronze Age. Like its name suggests, the river’s water has a deep red, rusty color. The river’s pigment is the result of iron dissolving in the acidic water. Rich in heavy metals like gold, silver, and copper, mining activity at the Rio Tinto can be dated back over 5,000 years. Due to its high acidity level – a pH between 1.7 and 2.5 – the river is extremely toxic to people. According to some scientists, the river’s extremophile aerobic bacteria provide conditions similar to those found on Europa, Jupiter’s moon, which is believed to have an acidic ocean underneath its surface.
3. The Ohio River – USA
According to the Environment America Research and Policy Center, 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into America’s waterways in 2010. Waste products include nitrates from food processors, mercury and other heavy metals, and toxic chemicals from all types of refineries. The Ohio River is the most polluted waterway in America, containing 32,111,718 lbs. of toxic discharges. The Ohio River is followed by the Mississippi River, which contains 12,739,749 lbs. of toxic discharges. The Clean Water Act doesn’t apply to all bodies of water in the U.S., and pollutants and toxic discharge in ditches, canals, and creeks often affect larger ecosystems. Estimates suggest that 60% of U.S. waterways aren’t protected.
2. Yamuna River – India
Oily black water scrummed with white toxic foam – India’s Yamuna River, second only to the Ganges in religious significance, is a wasteland choked with industrial spill and chemical runoff. The Yamuna River flows for 855 miles, bringing water to over 57 million people. While the Yamuna is smaller and brings water to less people than the Ganges – the Ganges serves over 500 million – the 14-mile stretch of Yamuna that flows through New Delhi is one of the most polluted waterways in the world. Soil erosion, waste disposal, and chemical runoff have left portions of the river blanketed in thick toxic foam. In 2010, Sunita Narain, director of the Center of Science and Environment, said “the river (Yamuna), by all pollution parameters, is dead. It has just not been officially cremated.”
1. Lake Karachay – Russia
Located in the southern Ural mountains, Lake Karachay is the most polluted place on the planet. The Soviet Union used the lake as a dumping ground for its nuclear facilities until the 1990s. The body of water is so toxic, in fact, that just standing on the shore for an hour gives you a radiation dose of 600 roentgen. Lake Karachay is located near Mayak Production Association, one of the leakiest and most meltdown-prone nuclear facilities in Russia (Myak was kept secret until 1990). People in nearby villages and towns saw a 25 percent increase in birth defects, a 41 percent increase in leukemia, and the Techa River was so poisoned with waste that 65 percent of the locals got radiation sickness. Today, Lake Karachay is full of concrete. The idea is that the concrete will absorb the radiation and keep the sediment away from the shore.