7 Major Environmental Issues Already Spoiling the Rio Olympics
From doping scandals to security concerns, the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil has been embroiled by one crisis after another—and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
As athletes and hundreds of thousands of tourists around the world descend into Rio de Janeiro, here are seven health and environmental controversies that have already made headlines before the Aug. 5 Opening Ceremony.
The polluted Guanabara bay in Rio where rowing and sailing will be held.Flickr
1. Polluted Waterways
Rio's epic water pollution has been going on for two decades due to a lack of modern sanitation programs. Despite Olympic organizers's promise to clean the city's waterways at their 2009 bid, trash, raw sewage and even body parts have been a presence at water sport venues.
At Guanabara Bay—where rowing and sailing will be held—tons of noxious raw sewage gets pumped into the bay each day. Oceanographer David Zee told CBS News that the Brazilian government planned to install eight treatment plants on Rio's polluted rivers but only built one. Officials promised to treat 80 percent of the sewage flowing into the bay but have gotten to only half. USA Today Sports reported that organizers will use a short-term and (purely cosmetic) water treatment method so the waters will glisten blue for television broadcasts.
In fact, Rio's Olympics will bring none of the environmental improvements that were originally pitched. An official from Brazil's Federal Audit Court, which audits the federal government's spending, told Reuters: "As for now, we have nothing relevant to report about what was done in the environmental area."
2. Super Bacteria
In related news, last year, the Associated Press published its results from an eight-month study of Rio's water venues, concluding that none were safe for swimming or boating, with more than 1 billion viruses from human sewage in a single liter of water from the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake. Water samples were 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.
That leads us to this conundrum. As EcoWatch mentioned last month, antibiotic-resistant super bacteria has been found in waters that will host the swimming portion of the triathlon and in the lagoon where rowing and canoe athletes will be competing. Two studies have connected five beaches—Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Botafogo and Flamengo—and the Rodrigo de Freitas to the superbug bacteria. Scientists say the super bacteria can cause hard-to-treat urinary, gastrointestinal, pulmonary and bloodstream infections, which contribute to death in up to half of infected patients. Meningitis has also been linked to exposure to the superbug.
A number of high-profile athletes, especially golfers, have dropped out of the Summer Games due to Zika fears. The mosquito-borne virus, which has spread throughout the South American country, has been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization. Some scientists have suggested that global warming is exacerbating the problem, which is linked to microcephaly in babies. Infectious diseases, such Zika and dengue, could spread as aedes aegypti mosquitoes expand their habitats in a warmer, wetter world, one study found. Experts, however, have said that there is little risk of Zika spread. The southern hemisphere is also currently in the middle of winter, making the threat of bites even lower. Still, the epidemic has only further impaired Brazil's struggling public health system, and will continue be a problem when the games conclude.
4. Golf Course Trampling on Nature
Golf's return to the Olympics should have been celebrated. However, not only are some of the sport's biggest stars skipping Rio due to Zika, instead of using the city's two existing golf courses, organizers decided to build a completely new one from scratch. Biologist and environmental activist Marcello Mello told the Guardian that the new course encroaches on the Marapendi reserve, home to rare butterflies, pines and other species not found anywhere else in the world, calling the construction an "environmental crime."
"They are destroying the Atlantic Forest, which is part of our national heritage," he added. Mello also alleges that the city is using the Olympics to help foster business for development companies. "Without a doubt, the Olympics are a giant real estate scam," he said. This is not to mention that thousands of people living in Rio's favelas have been notoriously pushed out of their homes for Olympic construction.
5. Jaguar Killing
Last month, a jaguar—the Brazilian Olympic team's mascot—was shot and killed at the Olympic torch passing ceremony. As EcoWatch reported, the female jaguar was shot after the female jaguar escaped from her handlers, sparking outcry from animal activists.
"Wild animals held captive and forced to do things that are frightening, sometimes painful and always unnatural are ticking time bombs—captivity puts animal and human lives at risk," the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote in a blog post.
Jaguars are a near-threatened species with an estimated 15,000 left in the wild, according to Defenders of Wildlife.
6. Public Transportation Mishaps
When Rio organizers made their bid for the summer games seven years ago, they suggested a number of improvements to ease the city's terrible traffic, which causes severe congestion, noise and air pollution from vehicle exhausts. However, the organizers probably did not anticipate that a crippling recession would affect their plans. The city's government declared a state of financial disaster last month, impacting Olympics-related infrastructure projects.
Rio's new 10-mile rail line, which cost $1.2 billion more than its initial estimate, may not be completed in time before the opening ceremony. A bike lane collapsed in April, killing two people. And according to the Associated Press, the new light rail system suffered a major power outage on the second day of service and the month-old highway near Barra da Tijuca is already damaged with potholes and large cracks.
7. The Danger of Environmental Activism
Protesting any of the environmental or health issues above might be a danger in itself. Brazil happens to be the nation of the highest death toll of environmental activists. Global Witness revealed 50 confirmed murders of environmental activists last year.
"I know there is a risk to this work. It is dangerous to campaign for the environment in Brazil," Mello told the Guardian about his Occupy Golf Campaign. "But I love nature and somebody has to do this job. If I die for this cause, it will be worth it."
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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