News Feature | September 27, 2018

Lead Contamination An Underreported Threat In Puerto Rico Tap Water

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

The tap water in Puerto Rico has an unfortunate reason for standing out.

"Puerto Rico has the worst record in the U.S. for drinking water safety," said Erik Olson, a senior health policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, per a new NPR report.

Lead may be a major threat to Puerto Rico tap water. The latest federal data show that lead is a underreported and under-monitored contaminant in Puerto Rico drinking water.

“According to data reported by the island's water systems between January 2015 and March 2018, 97 percent of Puerto Rico's population is served by a local drinking water system with at least one recent violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act's lead and copper testing requirements. That is far higher than any U.S. state,” NPR reported.

Olson, who previously worked at the U.S. EPA, described the scope of the problem.

"Virtually everyone on the island is getting water from systems that violate testing or reporting requirements. It's sort of a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil kind of situation where, if you don't test the water as the law requires, you're not going to know if you have a big problem,” he said.

Last year, Hurricane Maria decimated tap water access in Puerto Rico.

“Hurricane Maria’s destruction knocked out water service to over half of the residents using the island’s utility provider, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),” Kaiser Health News reported.

“On the island, The Maria Generation will remember it as 9/20, a vivid example that few things test a society's values like a massive disaster. With over 3 million people running out of food and water, the shattered island desperately needed air support. The Feds would eventually fly a record 5,373 sorties, but many towns furthest from San Juan didn't see help for weeks,” CNN reported.

The storm prompted a new push for effective drinking water testing on the island. Initial tests show a potential lead problem.

“Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, a chemistry professor from the University of Colorado, Boulder, specializing in wastewater chemistry, has led two rounds of initial testing showing possible lead contamination significant enough to warrant further study. He's applying for a grant to fund a larger study,” the report stated.

Rosario-Ortiz found evidence that Puerto Rico's major water utility, PRASA, had not been doing as much lead testing as is required.

“There's a fair number of lead and copper rule violations that seem to be mostly lack of sampling," he said, per the report. "A lot of people in Puerto Rico have been living for a long time without information, about whether there may be elevated levels of lead."

Eli Díaz-Atienza, the executive president of Puerto Rico's public water utility, spoke to NPR.

"Do I think it's a problem that we're not doing testing ? Yeah, I think it's a problem," he said.

He spoke to why testing is sometimes difficult in Puerto Rico.

“The federal data make the problem seem worse than it is, because federal law requires that the utility test the drinking water at specific times. But in Puerto Rico, there isn't always water to test. Compared with other parts of the U.S., water service is unreliable on the island. Filters clog, pipes leak. Some estimates suggest more than half of the water that leaves treatment plants never makes it to customers,” the report stated.

“When the utility is making repairs, they turn off the water. And when the water is off, they don't test it. Díaz-Atienza says he thinks the data should be adjusted for that,” it continued.