San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nation’s Water Supplies at Risk

If tap water reeks of human feces or gasoline, the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) assumes people probably won’t drink it.

But if it doesn’t smell bad and yet is polluted – say, by certain agrochemicals or hydrocarbons – then what happens?

Absolutely nothing, according to Darner Mora, director of AyA’s National Water Laboratory, unless someone specifically requests testing, or an emergency requires it.

It’s a scary state of affairs, he said, acknowledging that Costa Rica has no system in place for detecting chemical contaminants in its water supply. It’s especially scary when one considers that a single gallon of gasoline (3.7 liters) seeping from a leaky tank can contaminate almost 50 million liters of water.

AyA currently boasts 97.5% of Costa Rican residents have access to water in their households, thanks in large part to the institute’s services, but a study in 2004, conducted by Costa Rican scientists titled, “The Environmental Agenda for Water in Costa Rica,” found that 40% or more was not potable. The causes included chemical and sewage contamination.

Decades ago, the leading pollution problem was fecal material – typical of developing nations, Mora said. Chlorination has since largely eliminated the threat – and detection systems have been in place for years on all of the country’s major water supplies.

Even though an estimated 97% of the country’s blackwater, or water mixed with waste from the toilet, continues to be dumped into the rivers and streams without treatment, Mora said the country’s most serious problem emanates from sprouting industrial plants and factories, and agrochemicals from coffee and pineapple plantations (TT,March 9).

“Our main concern is industrial contaminants, chemicals and hydrocarbons,” he said, citing several recent incidents of chemical contamination, including the 2004 gasstation leak in Barreal de Heredia, north of San José, that had the potential to contaminate the water supply for upwards of 320,000 people and which has yet to be fully resolved.

A chemical fire in the Caribbean port city of Moín, last year left 20,000 people without water thanks to contamination by chemicals known as benzene and toluene, in a nearby spring – a further example, Mora said, of a continuing trend.

Both contamination issues were caused by emergency situations, and both exposed the fact that the government lacks even a basic plan for dealing with the problem – hence the need to call in outside sources of aid, such as the experts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who visited last month to weigh in on the government’s attempts to clean up the underground fuel leak in Heredia (TT, March 30).

The problem of hydrocarbons – naturally-occurring compounds found in natural gas, plastics, paraffin, waxes, solvents and oils, according to Victor Arias, director of the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Investigation of Environmental Contamination (CICA) – are particularly insidious in water supplies, because they often can’t be detected by scent or color.

“It really depends on the ratios found in the water,” he said, citing the fact that even water slightly contaminated with gasoline contains an odor, but other chemicals may not, putting inhabitants at risk of consuming cancer-causing substances.

He agreed that the Moín chemical fire had heightened awareness in the country, prompting more requests for testing at his lab and others. But AyA’s Mora said many of the offending leaks come from gasoline stations throughout the country that prove very difficult to monitor.

Last year, after a gasoline station exploded into flames and killed two children in the western suburb of Escazú (TT, Nov. 10, 2006), the Environment and Energy Ministry acknowledged the government still has just one employee to monitor Costa Rica’s 336 gas stations despite calls after discovery of the Heredia leak to improve regular gas station inspection efforts.

“As of now, if gasoline did leak into a local water supply, we don’t have detection systems in place to monitor such contaminants in any of our water supplies,” Mora said.Guadalupe, northwest of San José, is the sole exception – with a recently installed system that detects hydrocarbons.

Luisa Castillo, a toxicologist and director of investigations for the National University (UNA), said agrochemical problems are also becoming more and more prevalent, particularly as Costa Rica’s population continues to grow and spread out, closing in on plantations of coffee, pineapple and other crops – even in the Central Valley.

In a recent study conducted by the Regional Institute of Toxic Substance Studies, a department of the NationalUniversity, agrochemicals were discovered in wells on the Caribbean coast, raising another alarm flag.

“As agricultural lands and Costa Rica’s population centers come in closer contact, the problem of protecting our water supplies will become of great importance to the country,” Castillo said.

A new program, launched last month by AyA, called the National Program for the Improvement and Sustainability of Potable Water, will address many of these concerns, according to Mora – though it will take months, if not years, to unravel. He also said a plan is in place to begin to develop, and implement, detection technology in major water supplies.

Between now and then, he said the institute plans to contract a private company to identify high-risk areas and begin regular preventive water testing within three months.

Even in a perfect world, he said, he doubts Costa Rica will ever be able to monitor all of its water.

“Not even the United States can monitor every one of its sources of water,” he said.

Mora said rampant development in Costa Rica outpaced infrastructure planning years ago, and the country is now paying the price.

“This is all a consequence of this period of transition, from an undeveloped nation to a developed nation. We are dealing with industrialization and problems we’ve never encountered before,” he said.

Where to Test Your Own Water

A quick check of the Costa Rica yellow pages reveals a wide range of laboratorios throughout the Central Valley that test water for private homes and businesses.

Such tests typically run between ¢7,500-50,000 (about $15-97), depending on the type of test and the extent of the chemicals and substances tested, according to Victor Arias, of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) Center for Investigation of Environmental Contamination (CICA).

Testing for E. coli bacteria – a common home water contaminant – costs ¢7,500 (about $15) at the UCR lab. For a more complete test, expect to pay ¢12,000 (about $23). He said testing for such things as agrochemicals and hydrocarbons are also available, though more expensive and less often requested for individual home-water systems.

To arrange an analysis of your water supply, call the UCR lab at 207-4479, the National University (UNA) Laboratory for Environmental Analysis at 277-3696, or see the Web site for a complete list of accredited water testing labs in Costa Rica.

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