While visiting Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s'as a young journalist, I took a swim off famed Copacabana Beach even though the water quality was considered problematic.
I suffered no ill effects, but was told that my swim would have been far less risky if I had ventured further out from downtown to the Ipanema and Leblon beaches. At least from the Rio residents' perspective at that time, those beaches were widely regarded as pristine.
As the 2016 Olympics unfolds in Rio, the condition of its famed beaches has changed from decades ago, and not for the better. All of the previously mentioned have recorded unhealthy levels of fecal matter in their waters, and in some spots, even in the sand. That the natives are not keeling over en masse is largely credited to built-up immunity. It's an attribute not shared by foreign tourists, who are advised by health experts to avoid entering the water if there is some break in the skin from a sore or wound. And if visitors must dash into the surf, keep their head out of the water.
[The Olympic marathon and triathlon swimming events take place offshore from Copacabana Beach, but supposedly far enough out to sea to escape the contamination.]
According to scientists, the increased Rio coastline pollution can be traced to the doubling of the population as many of the rural poor migrated into the shanty towns in the hills above the city. With little in the way of modern sanitation facilities, raw sewage from the favelas (hillside communities) found its way into the sea below. As the years have passed, Rio authorities have been unable to keep up with the pollution loads.
But it's not just in Rio where the condition of beaches has declined. Increased human populations have put pressure on many beaches around the world, in developed as well as undeveloped countries. (In the Mediterranean, 80 percent of the urban sewage discharged into the sea is untreated.)
Indeed, there are very few beaches today that are in as good or better shape than they were 30 years ago, and that goes for us as well.
In 2012, for example, the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental think tank did a statistical analysis and found that 115 beaches in 18 states exceeded the maximum bacterial standard more than 25 percent of the time, primarily due to polluted storm water runoff.
To salvage our recreational beaches from the pressures of ubiquitous population growth, efforts need to be redoubled to upgrade sewage treatment capacity and other environmentally friendly waste disposal methodology.
Curbing global warming by reducing carbon emissions also comes into play. Climate change-related rising sea levels and harmful bacteria-inducing water temperatures as well as ocean acidification are adversely impacting our beaches.