This problem might never have come to light if it hadn’t been for the suspicions aroused in Cipreses neighbor Isabel Méndez when she visited the Plantón spring nine years ago. Cipreses is a staunchly Catholic town, and the community used to hold masses at this water source to ask the Virgin Mary to send rain for the crops. Mendez was working on the preparations for one of these ceremonies one Saturday in 2014 when she smelled a strong scent of pesticides. That night it rained hard and the next day she noticed a white scum on the ground, a probable residue of the waters that ran through the channels of the cultivated land in the direction of the spring. “Then I asked ASADA if there was contamination in the water and they always told me no, but I was worried,” says the woman.
Two years later, her daughter Fiorella, at the age of 16, was diagnosed with polyps inside the paranasal sinuses. They have operated on her but soon they come out again. “The doctors have told me that in the absence of other factors, we cannot rule out that the contaminated water has accelerated them,” says the young woman, now 23 years old, who has already lost almost all her ability to smell and taste. She is only able to recognize the irritating smell of agrochemicals when she goes for a walk or run through the streets in the middle of the farms and the small clouds that rise over the recently sprayed crops. It is difficult for a visitor not to notice that the wind often brings chemical odors.
For her family and for the neighborhood, Isabel decided to go beyond the communal work associated with the church. “Water is also sacred,” she justified. This is how she met the then administrator of ASADA, Ricardo Rivera, who had also internally pointed out environmental problems due to chlorothalonil. They met with a well-known environmentalist named Fabián Pacheco, who had recently come to live in Cipreses to set up an organic farm, and with other neighbors until they founded the group called EcoCipreses. That was the start of a campaign that has not only uncovered heavy contamination in their own water supplies, but has also sparked outpourings of support for a ban on this widely used fungicide.
In April, the Costa Rican Ministries of Health and the Environment, together with the Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA), issued a joint report recommending a national ban on the use of chlorothalonil. The report concluded that there was evidence that the chemical posed “significant risks to health and the environment” and that, given the contamination in Cipreses and Santa Rosa, it was “necessary to take measures to prevent the contamination of more water sources and to protect the health of the population”. In June, the Constitutional Chamber of the Costa Rican Supreme Court of Justice issued a ruling giving the government six months to implement the report’s recommendations.
In Costa Rica, any decision to ban a pesticide considered highly dangerous must be taken jointly by the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the latter did not participate in the report recommending the ban.
Also, just because an official report recommends a ban does not necessarily mean that the product will soon be banned. In the past, draft decrees to ban pesticides in Costa Rica have remained in the drawers of the ministers.
The agrochemical industry does not seem willing to take chlorothalonil off the market. Solís points out that the prohibition should be the last of all options and leaves the evidence presented so far under question: “in the face of approaches of this nature, in the first place, real, scientific evidence must be required or collected by the authorities and with the strict sampling and analysis technique, to verify that a presumption is truly based on real facts”, he insisted. “Based on presumptions, without science and without technique, in this field or in any other, it is not valid to speak of prohibitions.”
No one has an answer
Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Cipreses and Santa Rosa face an uncertain future. Isabel Méndez, Leonel Sánchez and no one else knows how long they were drinking contaminated water, or what the effects on their health will be. Neither the authorities nor the population know how widespread the contamination is in the country, nor how to recover the springs that are already affected.
In Cipreses, the scandal has caused deep divisions, with those who run the ASADA in open conflict with the neighbors who formed EcoCipreses.Opinions are divided in the town. Many continued to consume tap water, others began to consume that from the truck but over the days they got tired of hauling or waiting for it to arrive, and others continue to abide by the recommendation to use the liquid from the pipes only for cleaning. It’s not easy, says José Miguel Quesada, a 76-year-old retired day laborer who now suffers from cancer of the tongue, perhaps related to water, according to what the doctor treating him at the hospital told him. “One does not know if it is because of the water, but it is possible. In the same way, there are other people around here who have gotten sick and suspect it,” he said.
At the school it is mandatory to use only the liquid from the tank that fills the truck every day to drink and for the cooks to prepare food, explained Virginia Corrales, the director. “I don’t doubt that the water is contaminated, with studies already done, but we don’t know the effects. We also have the order from the Ministry of Health to use the water from the trucks. I have to ensure the health of more than 300 students” she said in her office. Meanwhile, Ana LíaCoto, the head of the school kitchen, peeled the potatoes with the water from the tank, although at home she takes it from the tap without worrying. “Nothing has happened to us,” she justified, shrugging her shoulders.
Outside of school, Valeria Calderón was waiting for the bus to work at a factory in another town. She lives with her husband and two children in a house that is lent to them on a farm where he works. He says that he has waited five years for his own house in a social project for poor families, but the plans were paralyzed by the prohibition of new water connections, due to the aforementioned contamination. “If they fire my husband, we have nowhere to go. The problem of this contamination, as they say, has affected us a lot”, he says with pessimism about the immediate future. He doesn’t know what will happen either.
She is not the only one. It is difficult to define a term for solutions, warned Rafael Barboza, director of rural aqueduct management at AyA. “The interest is always to recover the source,” he adds. New testing of the current sources in the entire region near the Irazú volcano is still in process. This, of course, may simply reveal a much larger and intractable problem. The “greatest concern”, admits AlbinBadilla, of the Ministry of Health, is that the contamination in Cipreses and Santa Rosa will spread throughout the region.
The administrator of the ASADA of Cipreses, Sonia Aguilar, mentioned that they are exploring other possible sources and evaluating hiring filtration systems for the contaminated springs, but she does not know who should bear the costs. The evidence from Europe is that the technology to remove chlorothalonil metabolites is prohibitively expensive.
The outlook is uncertain. “Right now we can’t stop the problem from occurring and if you ask me what the solution is, I have to tell you that I don’t have an answer. I don’t have it and no ASADA in this area has it,” said José Sanchez, from the Santa Rosa council.