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Puerto Rico's Tap Water Often Goes Untested, Raising Fears About Lead Contamination

People who lost access to water in the wake of Hurricane Maria gather at pipes carrying water from a mountain creek, on the side of the road in Utuado, Puerto Rico, in October 2017.
Ramon Espinosa
People who lost access to water in the wake of Hurricane Maria gather at pipes carrying water from a mountain creek, on the side of the road in Utuado, Puerto Rico, in October 2017.

Carmen Lugo has lived in Puerto Rico her whole life, and her whole life she has feared the water that comes out of her tap.

"When I was a child, we used filters," she says, leaning on the doorjamb with her 11-year-old in front of her and two teenage sons sleepy-eyed behind her on a morning in July.

"The water here," she says, pausing as she purses her lips in a tight smile. She chooses her words carefully. "We want to be in good health," she finally says. "My husband, he buys water from the Supermax," referring to a local grocery store.

Lugo is concerned about contamination. And she's not alone. For decades, the island's water authority has racked up fines and violations for failing to adequately test the tap water for bacteria, chemicals, and other contaminants, breeding distrust and potentially contributing to waterborne disease.

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

And it's not just bacteria and viruses. The most recent federal data shows widespread failures to monitor and report another contaminant: lead.

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.

"Virtually everyone on the island is getting water from systems that violate testing or reporting requirements," says Olson, a former lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency who specialized in drinking water regulation. "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."


Testing the water

When Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico last year, the storm damaged reservoirs and knocked out power to water pumps, leaving many people dependent on bottled water for months, and more skeptical than ever about the island's tap water.

A new push to start testing more of Puerto Rico's water is one small silver lining to come from the hurricane. The National Science Foundation has funded a small set of studies of the water.

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.

As part of the testing, Rosario-Ortiz and his team went door to door in Puerto Rico gathering bottles of water from people's bathroom sinks. Rosario-Ortiz grew up in Puerto Rico and, after Maria, he set out to help by testing drinking water.

Graduate student Melanie Warren and laboratory technician Taina Rodriguez Curet work with Fernando Rosario-Ortiz to test tap water samples in Puerto Rico for lead. Initial results suggest potentially dangerous levels of lead in some drinking water that Rosario-Ortiz hopes to investigate further in larger studies.
/ Rebecca Hersher/NPR
Rebecca Hersher/NPR
Graduate student Melanie Warren and laboratory technician Taina Rodriguez Curet work with Fernando Rosario-Ortiz to test tap water samples in Puerto Rico for lead. Initial results suggest potentially dangerous levels of lead in some drinking water that Rosario-Ortiz hopes to investigate further in larger studies.

"I grew up here. I drank water out of the tap every single day of my life," he says. "There were some reports of bacterial contamination, so we started by testing for that."

But Rosario-Ortiz found something else. "When we got the data back we noticed that some of the levels of lead were elevated," he explains. It was concerning, but the number of samples was small; they would need more information to know whether what they were seeing was an isolated issue, or the tip of an iceberg.

Under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, water utilities are required to test for lead and other metals in the water, and to report the results to both consumers and to the federal government, which publishes the data. If Puerto Rico's major water utility, known as PRASA, had been testing as required, it would be easy to see where Rosario-Ortiz's lead data fit in the larger picture.

But much of the data was missing. "There's a fair number of lead and copper rule violations that seem to be mostly lack of sampling," says Rosario-Ortiz. "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."

That makes it difficult for residents to trust what comes out of their taps, even if it is, indeed, safe to drink. The lack of information can be particularly worrisome for parents of small children, whose development can be affected by lead exposure.

A 2017 study of blood lead levels in Puerto Rican children under 6 years old found a prevalence of elevated lead levels similar to that in New York City. But the authors noted that, while lead paint accounts for much of the problem in New York, the source of lead for Puerto Rican kids is unknown, and requires further study.

"We don't know what effect high levels of lead are having in people, or in kids in the community, because it's not tested," explains Graciela Ramirez-Toro, the director of the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico's Center for Education, Conservation and Environmental Studies. "One of the things that might have resulted positive from the hurricane is people are testing [the water]."

There isn't always water to test

Although the Safe Drinking Water Act is a federal law, responsibility for enforcing it largely falls to state and territorial governments. That places a lot of responsibility on utility executives, like the executive president of Puerto Rico's public water utility, Eli Díaz-Atienza.

"Do I think it's a problem that we're not doing testing ? Yeah, I think it's a problem," says Díaz-Atienza. But, he says, 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.

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.

Drinking water samples from homes in southwestern Puerto Rico are tested at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico in San German.
/ Rebecca Hersher/NPR
Rebecca Hersher/NPR
Drinking water samples from homes in southwestern Puerto Rico are tested at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico in San German.

In fact, he goes a step further. Asked how he would describe the current state of Puerto Rico's drinking water system, he says, "I would grade it one of the best functioning systems in the U.S." He notes that after Maria, his employees restored service to many communities within days, trucking fuel to start generators that would run pumps all over the island.

And, of all the potential contaminants that the utility is supposed to test for, lead is not Díaz-Atienza's top concern. "We haven't seen situations of lead contamination in our system," he says. Unlike cities with water systems built at the turn of the last century, when lead was commonly used in some water pipes, in Puerto Rico "we don't have that much old [piping]," he says.

But lead contamination doesn't have to come from public pipes. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "lead found in tap water usually comes from the corrosion of older fixtures or from the solder that connects pipes." And lead solder is common in some Puerto Rican communities, as it is all over the country.

While it's not the utility's responsibility to test the water in every home, in the wake of the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Mich., states and utilities are supposed to be testing some tap water in order to identify lead service lines leading to houses, and make sure the water they distribute is being treated in a way that minimizes the risk of corrosion. Based on the public data, that doesn't appear to be happening in Puerto Rico.

What comes of testing

It is unclear whether the hurricane, and the attention it's drawn to Puerto Rico's water infrastructure, will ultimately result in better compliance from the major water utility.

Officials are "very worried that this data will increase the belief that they are not doing their job, or that the water is not safe," says Ramirez-Toro of Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. But, she says, public distrust is already so high that transparency about drinking water testing is a good thing, even if the data suggest that drinking water might not be entirely safe.

"This helps people make decisions about their health," she says. "For most people, they are not used to thinking about the water, except that they don't trust it."

And, while Puerto Rico is singular in the proportion of its population served by water that hasn't been adequately tested, states such as Texas also have large numbers of violations that affect millions of people. There is nationwide pressure on states and utilities, as well as on the EPA, to do better.

A July report by the inspector general for the EPA found the government had failed to make sure the water in Flint, Mich., was being treated and tested effectively. It also faulted the EPA for communicating poorly with the state, and being too slow to step in when it was clear the state was not enforcing the law. Another federal report released in July found widespread failures to test for lead in the drinking water of schools across the country.

A bill currently moving through Congress would requires states to improve the accuracy of their reporting when it comes to the results of drinking water tests. It would also push states to consolidate systems that are struggling to comply with safe drinking water laws.

Such a change could affect Puerto Rico more than any other state or territory, as the island has the most fragmented drinking water infrastructure in the country, with more than 200 systems serving a population similar to the Minneapolis metro area.

"People are shocked at how complicated it is," says Ramirez-Toro, who has served on numerous national working groups about water safety.

And then there's the issue of money. Scientists, public health experts, government officials and advocates all agree that Puerto Rico needs serious investment in its drinking water infrastructure. The head of the utility, Díaz-Atienza, says he is requesting $2 billion in infrastructure spending over the next five years. That money might actually materialize, since federal government approved more than $20 billion in community block grants for the island to rebuild and improve housing and infrastructure.

"The infrastructure funding is absolutely necessary," says Brent Fewell, a drinking water lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a former senior official at the EPA's Office of Drinking Water. But, he says, money isn't the whole answer, because a lot of drinking water testing is done by hand, by actual people.

"What I would say is, money is not going to fix the culture," he says. "If you've got a broken culture, [employees] that don't understand the law or simply do things their own way, extra funding is not going to fix that. What will fix that is leadership."

Fewell is hopeful on that front. "I do know the leadership in Puerto Rico, and they are doing the best they can," he says, referring to Díaz-Atienza and the territorial government. "They are trying to change the culture there."

Díaz-Atienza says he hopes to devote some money in the coming years to training for people who operate local water treatment plants. This week, the EPA announced it is funneling $10 million in technical support and financial assistance to small, independent, rural systems that have also struggled to treat and test drinking water.

But such investments will play out over years. In the short term, it's hard to imagine restoring public trust in the water that comes out of the tap in Puerto Rico.

Asked what the utility could do to regain her trust, resident Carmen Lugo shakes her head.

"I don't know," she says. "Rebuild the whole system? Or?"

She waves her hand like she's holding a wand, and laughs. Maybe magic would do the trick.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.