‘Open’ Water; A Future of Polluted Swimming

Photo Courtesy: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

By Colin Hogan, Swimming World College Intern

A slightly horrifying headline from the run-up to this past summer’s Olympic Games read “Rio 2016: Swimmers need to ingest only three teaspoons of water to be almost certain of contracting a virus”.

The Independent reported on a 16-month-long study that had been commissioned by the Associated Press, which found measured concentrations of viruses and bacteria to be astonishingly higher than standards in the United States and Europe.

Athletes from around the world made it clear that a few micro-organisms wouldn’t get in their way, but how much higher were these concentrations, anyway? Viral levels were not doubled, or even tripled, but 1.7 million times higher than acceptable levels in the United States or Europe.

Per The Independent, “At those concentrations, swimmers and athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water are almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and, more rarely, heart and brain inflammation—although whether they actually fall ill depends on a series of factors including the strength of the individual’s immune system.”

That only a handful of athletes did fall ill during or after the Games indicates reasonably good compliance with a two-teaspoon limit on ingestion.

And while the Games’ close has shifted the world’s focus away from Rio, the environmental catastrophe in the city will persist. Surfers and swimmers will continue to bear the brunt of health-related effects from the sewage-rank waters, meanwhile babies and small children currently are at the highest risk for the viruses that water pollution has transmitted onto the sand at popular beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema.

It would be easy to vilify Rio officials for their many shortcomings and broken promises that contributed to such a spectacular embarrassment. There are multiple camps whose agendas could benefit from doing so: the sports community wishing for duly sanitary facilities; environmentalists excoriating clear anthropogenic affect; economists protecting the Brazilian tourist industry; politicians finger-pointing corruption; journalists looking for a big, easy target.

But to asperse Rio would be to scapegoat the real, present problem of ocean pollution and distance ourselves from its manifold ramifications. Those communities that especially rely on the water, like open-water swimmers, cross-training pool swimmers and recreational beach-goers, have a vested interest in the water and it’s health. They are not likely to see Rio as an anomaly, but as a harbinger.

For even off the shores of United States pollution has become rampant. Though sewage treatment regulations ensure that sewage pollution is minimized, other pollutants, such as plastics, litter the seascape. In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments are carried into the ocean every single day, reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

If this were true, one might say, there ought to be a whole sea of plastic, practically. Yet for those who are looking, there is.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, despite its name, is actually best understood as two separate vortexes that trap huge amounts of debris, mainly plastics, and are located off the coasts of Japan and California. The system that drives this phenomenon is called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre—it’s a system of ocean currents that span the Pacific, and it sweeps up debris and traps it in the two vortexes, known as the Western Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch.

It’s almost impossible to accurately measure the whole Pacific Garbage Patch, because many of the plastics break down into microplastics, which makes the water’s surface seem cloudy. Other, denser garbage sinks below the surface a few meters or even to rest on the ocean floor. National Geographic has said that scientists have collected about 1.9 million plastic bits (plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and fragments thereof) in just one square mile of these immense trash heaps.

Unsurprisingly, animals all the way up the food chain are affected. Plankton, sea birds, sea mammals, fish and, yes, humans. Not even the most scrumptious populations are immune, so neither are we.

The effects are felt on the other side of the Patch, too. “Off Japan’s coast, the quantity of pelagic plastic particles floating increased 10 fold in the 10 years between the 1970s and 1980s, and then 10 fold every 2-3 years in the 1990s,” writes Clean Water Action, an organization devoted to clean water legislation.

Definitively, sewage and plastic pollution are two of the most visible impacts humans are having on the oceans and bodies of water everywhere. They are also the most likely to affect swimmers and swimming competitions more and more frequently in the future.

However another type of pollution is even more threatening to the oceans, and it’s completely invisible to the naked eye. The only good news is that you don’t have to be an open water swimmer to care about it.

It’s frequently referred to as ocean acidification, but like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the name isn’t entirely accurate. On the pH scale there are acids and bases, graded on a spectrum, and the ocean as a whole is more basic, or alkaline. What’s happening today is reduced alkalinity in the oceans—‘ocean acidification’ is just catchier.

Since the Industrial Revolution humans have put carbon into the atmosphere at an increased rate, emitting hundreds of billions of metric tons of carbon via processes like burning coal and running gasoline engines. Over these nearly 200 years the ocean has absorbed about 150 billion of those metric tons, and whether or not that’s a significant number to you, it is to the oceans.

Around the world, coral reefs have been shrinking because their structures can’t survive the water’s new chemistry. Likewise many shell-building organisms have seen their life-sustaining processes disrupted.

Already many human industries have been affected. The New York Times reported in 2015, “About 10 years ago, ocean acidification nearly collapsed the annual $117 million West Coast shellfish industry, which supports more than 3,000 jobs.”

And more industries are at stake, including the $1 billion U.S. shellfish industry as a whole. The Times reported on significant bodies of water that will be at risk: “In addition to the Pacific Northwest, these areas include Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and areas of Maine and Massachusetts. Already at risk are Alaska’s fisheries, which account for nearly 60 percent of the United States commercial fish catch and support more than 100,000 jobs.”

The swimming industry, however, won’t be affected by ocean acidification in the same way. Because waters aren’t acidifying but actually becoming less alkaline, it could be argued that the oceans will be more suitable for humans. The changing oceans won’t poison us directly, only by altering the ecosystem will we feel its effects.

Swimmers are on the front lines of so many different types ocean pollution, paradigmatically the open water swimmers who competed in Rio, but the problem of ocean acidification (caused by the pollution of carbon) is just as invisible to us as to others—or maybe even more so because, truly, the water seems fine.

Caring about the health of our waters, though, requires that we understand and vocalize the effects of carbon pollution as much as we do concerning the more obvious pollutants of sewage and plastic. We will continue to swim, but the water we’re in isn’t ‘open,’ it’s threatened.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Steven Munatones
7 years ago

You wrote a handful of athletes got sick during the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Rio. Do you know if their illnesses were directly related to the ocean water in Rio? What was the diagnoses? I heard a few athletes fell sick, but that was apparently before the actual races in Copacabana Beach.

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