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    How a Pesticide Banned in Europe Stole Water from a Town in Costa Rica (Part 1)

    Water is also sacred!

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    Costa Rican authorities have had to truck water to the town of Cipreses for months after the aqueduct was found to be contaminated with derivatives of chlorothalonil, a pesticide banned in Europe that Syngenta and other European companies still sell in Costa Rica. Authorities fear this could be just the tip of the iceberg in a country where authorities do not have the capacity to test their own water for these contaminants.

    When they announced that the first truck with clean water was on its way, the denouncers of the contamination of the aqueduct in Cipreses knew that their fight was on the right track. State institutions had finally understood the need to bring water from other places to the small mountain town of Costa Rica after laboratory tests found substances derived from chlorothalonil in the sources in alarming quantities, up to 200 times above the parameters allowed. The pesticide is widely used on farms in Costa Rica, although it is banned in Europe after it was found to be a groundwater contaminant and a “suspected human carcinogen.”

    It was Saturday, October 22, 2022, two days after the order of the Costa Rican Ministry of Health recommending that the 5,000 users of the Cipreses aqueduct not use the water for drinking or preparing food. The tanker arrived at 8:50 a.m. at the entrance of the town and the members of a small group of neighbors called EcoCipreses were happy knowing that this was a good step – eight years after a neighbor expressed her concern – but the problem was much more serious and that perhaps it was going to transcend the town limits.

    Those fears were confirmed less than two weeks later. Authorities had been looking into connecting Cipreses to water sources used by the neighboring town of Santa Rosa, but later laboratory tests found that most of these springs were also contaminated with chlorothalonil breakdown products. On November 4, the Ministry of Health issued another order, closing five of the Santa Rosa springs. A subsequent round of tests found the presence of contamination in another of the Santa Rosa springs, and in March of this year it was closed for human consumption as well.

    The tip of an iceberg

    The problem in both towns is likely just the tip of an iceberg, according to José Sánchez, president of the local authority responsible for managing Santa Rosa’s water system (ASADA). Cipreses and Santa Rosa are located in the agricultural region of northern Cartago province, near the capital of San José, where farmers have been spraying huge amounts of chlorothalonil for decades. In this area, on the fertile slopes of the Irazú volcano, in the central mountain range of Costa Rica, 80% of the country’s vegetables are produced and tens of thousands of people live. Sánchez believes that the contamination is likely to spread throughout the region.

    A regional emergency

    “Logic says that as laboratory analyzes continue, the springs of this entire area will continue to be contaminated, due to the type of agricultural production and the type of soil,” Sánchez told us at his home two days after receiving the results. laboratory on contamination in the sixth of seven springs in the town. “Now this is not just the problem of one town, it is the emergency of an entire region.”

    No one knows how many people in Costa Rica have been exposed to these contaminants or for how long. Costa Rican authorities have never systematically tested drinking water for the presence of one of the most widely used pesticides in the country. They don’t even have the ability to analyze chlorothalonil’s metabolites, the substances that are created when the agrochemical begins to break down in the environment, which can also pose health risks.

    It was chlorothalonil metabolites that contaminated the drinking water of Cipreses and Santa Rosa, but they would never have been discovered if it had not been for the suspicions of the group of neighbors who organized to request that the water be analyzed, or for the work of specialists from the Regional Institute for Studies on Toxic Substances (IRET), of the National State University, whose researchers voluntarily agreed to carry out tests on the water.

    “We were confident that there is a National Water Laboratory that checks the water quality twice a year, but we did not imagine that this would happen,” added Sánchez.

    He is not the only one who fears that the contamination could be much more widespread than previously detected. In April, the Costa Rican Health and Environment ministries issued a joint report in response to the situation in Cipreses and Santa Rosa. The report noted that in the agricultural region immediately surrounding these communities, there were about 65,000 people who depended on similar water supplies; Many of these sources, he added, were in “the same conditions”, with agriculture so close to the water sources that it was “affecting the quality of the water” and generating “a very high probability of contamination from the use of chemical products.” He concluded by recommending a national ban on the use of chlorothalonil.

    But for now, farmers in this region, where almost everyone’s livelihood depends on the economy around the production of potatoes, carrots, onions or cabbage, continue to spray chlorothalonil on their crops. And despite the fact that this pesticide is now banned in the European Union, Switzerland and the United Kingdom due to the dangers it poses to water sources and human health, European companies continue to sell it in large quantities in countries like Costa Rica.

    Various importers

    According to official Costa Rican customs data analyzed by Unearthed and Public Eye, Syngenta products accounted for more than a quarter (26%) of all chlorothalonil imported into Costa Rica between 2020 and 2022. This represented a larger market share than any another manufacturer. Other European agrochemical companies, including the German BASF, are also marketing chlorothalonil in Costa Rica. Some of those products have even been exported to the country directly from Europe. Italy, Belgium, Denmark and the United Kingdom have exported chlorothalonil to Costa Rica since passing national bans on the substance in 2019, customs data shows.

    A BASF spokesperson told Unearthed and Public Eye: “BASF has been informed that trace amounts of chlorothalonil metabolites have been observed in the water systems in Cipreses, Costa Rica. Such reports are of great concern to us.”

    The company is convinced that its products are safe “when used correctly, following label directions and administration guidelines,” it added. “As an added layer of safety, we voluntarily test all uses of products that have potential health risks and only endorse them when the tests confirm safety for farmers under local use conditions. Our employees live and work in the countries where we sell our products and are in the fields with local growers.”

    No solution in sight

    It has been more than eight months since the tanker trucks began to bring water to Cipreses, but there is still no solution in sight. Currently the construction of new houses or buildings is prohibited in Cipreses due to the lack of permits for water pipes. As of mid-June, the Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA) – the central government body responsible for overseeing water supply services throughout the country – had already paid $200,000 for the truck deliveries.

    Concerns abound among authorities and the population, doubts about the real situation and questions about possible solutions. However, evidence from studies in European countries where the chemical is already banned is that chlorothalonil metabolites are highly persistent in the environment and are likely to “significantly impair groundwater for many years”. The technologies available to remove these contaminants from drinking water are prohibitively expensive and consume a lot of energy.

    “You have to do a broader sampling throughout the area, but you have to see what resources and what is the way to solve this. It is not sustainable to serve the population with trucks every day or to allow them to continue taking risks with piped water. You have to think at the same time about how to recover the sources, but it is complex. This is sad,” reflected Clemens Ruepert, a research chemist at IRET. Their analyzes have been decisive in sustaining the complaints by EcoCipreses and triggering the sanitary measures of the country’s central authorities. “People drink water that undoubtedly has degradation products from certain pesticides widely used in the area. We have no doubt,” says Ruepert.

    Like a drug

    “It’s like a drug,” says farmer Óscar Ruiz, who cultivates fields near Cipreses. Many of the estimated 9,000 residents of Cipreses and Santa Rosa have continued to drink tap water despite the Health Ministry order, but Ruiz is not one of them. He stopped drinking water from the Cipreses water supply in October. Instead, he takes advantage of tanker truck deliveries or hauls water from a property he owns in a nearby town called Pacayas, believing that the water in Pacayas is uncontaminated. But he hasn’t stopped spraying chlorothalonil on his carrot and potato crops.

    “It’s too good to kill fungus,” he tells Unearthed and Public Eye. Ruiz explains that the fungicide is effective and reasonably priced, which means people use it in large quantities and more often than manufacturers recommend. He assures us that lately people have started using less, on the advice of agronomists who work for the pesticide industry, which has great influence in this rural area. Huge billboards for these products are seen along the main street.

    Daconil and Bravonil are two of the more well-known brands of chlorothalonil around here, both made by Syngenta, the multinational agrochemical giant based in Switzerland, where the use of these fungicides is banned. They are widely sold in Costa Rica and are particularly popular in the north of the city of Cartago. For 14,000 colones (25 US dollars) we bought a bottle of Bravonil at one of the local stores in Cipreses. “It sells a lot,” the seller told us.

    Resonance Costa Rica
    At Resonance, we aspire to live in harmony with the natural world as a reflection of our gratitude for life. Visit and subscribe at Resonance Costa Rica Youtube Channel https://youtube.com/@resonanceCR
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