RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio de Janeiro police are investigating workers at a state utility after foul-smelling tap water began flowing into dozens of neighborhoods in the Brazilian city, raising health concerns and sparking a run on bottled water.
Investigator Júlio Filho said police will question staff at Cedae, the water utility, who operate machinery and registers to find out whether sabotage, human error or natural changes in the water could be responsible for the off-putting odor and taste. Some residents have also reported a reddish or brownish color to their water.
“We need to know where we are at so we can calm Rio's population,” Filho told reporters on Thursday after a visit to the utility's facilities near the Guandu river, which supplies a vast part of the city.
Many Rio supermarkets have already run out of bottled water amid panic buying sometimes fueled by rumors spread on social media.
At a small public clinic in Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas in north Rio, doctors have seen a significant increase in cases of abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting in recent days. Although it's too early to be certain of the cause, such symptoms are often associated with water consumption.
On Wednesday, Cedae said the water is affected by geosmin, an innocuous organic compound, and that Rio's water meets health ministry requirements. But that has not made locals more confident in using it.
Cedae officials also said that while geosmin is responsible for the odor, any odd color is due to the piping systems of individual homes.
Water experts at Rio federal university said in a statement that “geosmin is not toxic, but (the odor) may indicate problems in the quality of the raw water used for supply.”
“There is a real threat to the (water) security of Rio de Janeiro's metropolitan area,” the statement said.
The university suggested changes to the way Rio manages its water resources, with better contingency plans, clear communication of the risks to the population and investment in long-term solutions.
Rio Gov. Wilson Witzel has called for an analysis of the water’s quality and of the utility’s management.
Meanwhile there's a growing number of people saying they're concerned that Rio's water has made them unwell.
Larissa Pereira, 18, who works fixing computers and cellphones, went to the Alemão clinic after feeling abdominal pains.
"He (the doctor) told me that it's the water," she said. Two of Pereira's family members are also sick.
The state health secretariat warns that symptoms like Pereira's alone are not proof the water is making people sick, saying proper testing is needed. Areas like Alemão, it says, often have problems with sanitation, since many homes are not connected to the city's sewage system.
But that is not the case of the upscale region of Ipanema, where American James Gulbrandsen, the head of hedge fund NH Capital, fell “violently ill” after consuming ice made from drinking water.
“I had some leftover antibiotics and blitzed myself with them late Sunday and early Monday. I went to work around midday after being able to eat for the first time since lunch the day before,” he said by text message.
Still, most cases of people saying they were affected are in Rio's poorest areas, where people struggle to buy bottled water.
Marcos Valério Alves, 51, the president of the Nova Brasilia favela residents association, is used to seeing murky water in his community once every two months. But this time he noticed a different smell and taste.
"The water was coming with an odor of clay, very bad. I and my wife had diarrhea, we've just started to get better," he said.
Alves returned to work on Thursday after two days rest. He doesn't believe the water company's claims.
“Cedae says there is no problem at all, but the ones who know are us, who are living it and drinking it,” he said.
AP writer Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.