Scots scientists aim to clean waters before Brazil 2016

Children on a bridge over a polluted stream in Rio de Janeiro as residents watch football on TV. Picture: Getty
Children on a bridge over a polluted stream in Rio de Janeiro as residents watch football on TV. Picture: Getty
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AS THE countdown begins to next year’s Olympic Games in Brazil, a team of Scottish scientists is launching a pioneering new scheme to tackle toxic 
water pollution in two of the country’s biggest cities.

There is considerable concern about the long-term impacts of contaminated water on ecosystems and human health in Brazil, where a bay set to host Olympic sailing and windsurfing events is so bad that competitors recently des­cribed it as an “open sewer”.

Professor Ole Pahl. Picture: Contributed

Professor Ole Pahl. Picture: Contributed

Now researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) are joining forces with community groups, environment agencies and academics in São Paulo and Curitiba for an “interactive” two-year project aimed at reducing poll­ution and helping residents to take control and change things for the better.

The Belim river in Curitiba turns from a protected river, wildlife reserve and recreational area into a giant cesspit.

In São Bernardo, a suburb of São Paulo, the Billings reservoir also begins as a nature res­erve, drinking water source and fishing ground in its protected upstream areas. But it becomes increasingly polluted as it flows beneath the city and ends up as a potentially lethal sink for waste from both formal and slum settlements.

A wide range of social groups are affected by the poor water quality and are also contributing to it.

Instead of lecturing them we would like a more interactive approach

Professor Ole Pahl

Project leader Professor Ole Pahl, an environmental technology expert at GCU, says the team will be testing for a wide range of contaminants, from e-coli, salmonella and other bacteria found in human waste to heavy metals from mining, agricultural run-off and micropollutants from chemicals.

They are particularly concerned over the possible dangers to human health and the environment posed by medication such as chemotherapy drugs, statins and antimicrobials being flushed down the toilet, which they fear could accelerate the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

But Pahl is hoping an innovative combination of citizen science, laboratory analysis and community engagement will help guarantee the new initiative’s success.

“We are thinking of this as a three-step journey.

“First, we want to find out what people are concerned about, what they like and dislike about their environment, whether they have new ideas.

“Then we will monitor the water and as much as possible involve communities and citizen science.

“We hope to highlight any health or environmental degradation issues to local people and governments, then they will have the information and can do something about it.”

Pahl believes this method will “empower” people to take appropriate action.

He added: “We really don’t want to go in there and say this is what you should do and if you don’t do it you are bad people. That’s why it is so important to go in and speak with the communities first.

“Instead of lecturing them we would like a more interactive approach.”

The team will begin by canvassing local communities to identify what they perceive to be the key pollution threats.

Water-testing will also be carried out to identify the nature of any contaminants, with the results being used to inform potential solutions.

Co-researcher Dr Paul Teedon, from the university’s school of engineering, is responsible for the social side of the project.

He said: “We hope people in communities where we are working will get involved in monitoring, doing survey work and some analysis.

“I’m keen to do this because one of the biggest difficulties is encouraging people to be aware there is an issue.

“I firmly believe getting people involved directly in science activity helps them understand the implications for their own lives, particularly around things like pollution.

“You get them involved in it, you raise awareness and you are more likely to change people’s attitudes or behaviours about what they can do.

“They might not be able to solve the problem, but they might no longer contribute to it.”

The project is backed by £150,000 of funding from the British Council’s official development assistance programme and is in partnership with the Universidade Federal do ABC in São Paulo and Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Paraná in Curitiba.