Water in San Miguel, Arsenic and Fluor too much?
By Jesús Aguado
One thing that no one denies is that there are some wells in San Miguel de Allende which have levels of fluoride and arsenic above the Official Mexican Norm, the national regulatory standards for contamination for arsenic and fluoride.
However, not everyone is in agreement as to how many of those contamination wells exist and whether or not drinking from them is dangerous.
The local NGO Caminos de Agua has produced a virtual map showing up to what they say are 15 dangerously contaminated wells in the urban area—testing with levels of contamination that are considered “a danger” if the water is drunk regularly.
However, the city’s Sistema de Agua Potable y Alcantarilladro (The Potable Water and Sewage System) insists that they are only two such wells and that they are being rendered safe for consumption through a process of dilution.
A problem in the basin
Since 1998, tests have shown the presence of arsenic and fluoride in the Cuenca de la Independencia’s water, a source for the area. Arsenic is a known cancer-causing mineral, and fluoride is proven to damage not only teeth, limbs and the spine but also neurotransmitters, the latter problem which can lead to a 30–40 percent reduction in IQ and cause depression in children, “illness closely related to suicide” said Marcos Ortega, researcher for the Instituto de Geociencias de Universidad Autonoma de México (GeoScience Institute of the Autonomous University of México), at a delivery ceremony where the local Rotary Club Midday chapter donated rainwater collection tanks in the La Vivienda rural community.
The Rotary Club Chapter’s goal, in conjunction with the Centro de Desarollo Agropecuario (Center for Agricultural Development), known as CEDESA, is that each family that consumes polluted water in the Independence Basin have a water tank that gathers rainwater. Since 12 years ago, when Rotary donated the first one of these rainwater collection tanks, more than 1,000 families have received one. Reaching that benchmark number represents a great achievement for the people behind the initiative, for those who promote an array of ecofriendly technologies ranging from water filters to stoves to white cans—all of which represent a hope for health and life for the inhabitants of these various communities.
In the Vivienda de Abajo community, children, adults, and elderly people regularly have ochre-colored teeth. As resident Sara Hernández now knows, the pigment is not a genetic feature of the community’s population but due to the high concentration of the fluoride and other minerals in their water sources. The minerals are even in the soil, she says. Before the community received clean water and rainwater tanks, families drank the water from the Laja River, as well as from wells they had dug in the past. Despite Hernández’s belief that many people in the community suffer from terminal renal failure, “and it is caused by the water,” it is actually not her biggest worry. She finds even more worrying the presence of bone disease caused by the accumulation of fluoride in the bones over time.
“They have told us that bones become fragile and that one suffers from fractures easily,” she said. Before the Rotary Club constructed a water tank in her house, she had to buy bottled water for cooking and drinking. She only uses well water to wash clothes or water plants.
According to Ortega, tests of the water in the Cuenca de Independencia have been going on since 1998. He explained, that in order to make decisions, the municipal governments of Dr Mora, San Luis de la Paz, San Diego de la Unión and other counties, were confused because they didn’t know what was happening in the area and also, he said, the Comisión Nacional del Agua (The National Water Commission), known as CONAGUA, and the Comisión Estatal de Agua de Guanajuato (Guanajuato State Water Commission), known as CEAG, had contradictory information. It led the governments to request the UNAM study, he said.
“Through agreements, a comprehensive study of the underground water was made, and for the first time in México, 75 chemical elements were used to understand the interaction of the water with the subsoil and the rocks, and their age and their origin. There were many questions to be answered,” Ortega said.
According to Ortega, 5,000 affected children in those communities were detected in 1998. “Now there must be 50,000,” he said, adding that the federal and state authorities knew of the problem, but “do not want to recognize it despite the evidence.”
Ortega believes the parties responsible for the problem are the Consejo Nacional Agropecuario (The National Agricultural Council), known as CNA, and the CEAG, because “they have failed to comply with their obligations and have allowed thousands of people from Guanajuato to be affected by these minerals.”
He also added that the Cuenca de Independencia is overexploited and that in the 1990s there were 2,500 wells in the area around it, “half of which would never have been authorized.” He also claimed that 80 percent of the basin’s water is irresponsibly wasted for agriculture.
Caminos del Agua
Caminos del Agua was founded in 2015. It finally fulfilled the requirements to become a Civil Association in México last year, according to Caminos del Agua Subdirector Francisco Guajardo.
“We are an organization focused on providing solutions that gives safe, healthy, and accessible water to people. The contamination of water in the area is due to the pollution and overexploitation of aquifers,” Guajardo said, adding that in 1950, wells in San Miguel had a depth of five meters. That depth was 100 meters in 1970, and now the depths go down to 500 meters, he said.
“At that depth, what you extract is fossil water that comes polluted with minerals such as arsenic and fluoride,” he said.
In conjunction with various universities, including Guanajuato University, Texas University A&M, and Northern Illinois University, the organization monitors the quality of the water in several target areas, he said.
Without concrete proof to show, Guajardo said that, “a lot of wells are above the norm” with regard to fluoride and arsenic contamination.
“It is a common problem,” he said. “We are not talking about three or four. There are many wells. The ingestion of arsenic and fluoride are dangerous. In communities where the wells have caved in the water that they have now is even more toxic.”
Caminos de Agua now works alongside other organizations like Rotary Midday, to provide rainwater collection tanks.
The map causes conflicting opinions
Caminos del Agua’s lab in colonia Independencia continues to analyze drinking water all over San Miguel and has created an online interactive map which shows in red dots where arsenic levels are above the Official Mexican Norm 127 (at 0.025 mg/l) and where fluoride is above the norm (at 1.5mg/l). Some are above the norm for both minerals.
The map indicates that in San Miguel’s urban zone, there are 15 wells where the pollution levels are considered “a danger” if drank regularly. The wells are located in the following neighborhoods: Las Brisas, San Antonio, Linda Vista, San Rafael, Guadalupe, Centro, Providencia, Olimpo, y Tirado.
However SAPASMA Director and engineer Francisco Jiménez told Atención that the water from the wells in San Miguel are safe and also can be used for cooking with “no danger.” He also said that Caminos del Agua’s map cannot be correct because there are only two wells the city in which fluoride or arsenic are above Mexican Norm 127. Dilution of the minerals’ levels in those two wells in question make the water suitable for consumption.