Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ~
Atrazine is an herbicide used to prevent pre and post-emergence broad-leaf weeds in crops such as maize (corn) and sugarcane and it is used heavily in Panama. The extensive use of the weed killer has also led to runoff in lakes, streams and sometimes in drinking water. It’s been found in unacceptable levels for the second time this year in the La Villa de Los Santos River effecting the drinking water by towns all the way from La Arena to Las Tablas, 14 districts, 83,000 people and two water plants in total. On Friday an order was given from the Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud) and bottled water and water trucks travelled throughout the effected districts to deliver fresh water.
Atrazine was removed from the market in Europe in 2004 and is not permitted to be used even in Switzerland, the home of the manufacturer. Some studies suggest a possible association between atrazine and ovarian, breast and prostate cancers and birth defects including smaller male genitals and other congenital birth defects. Atrazine may only increase corn yield by as little as 1.2 % or not at all according to some studies. We’ve often noticed how easy it is to get chemicals, even ones that are banned for use in North America.
I don’t know the back story on how the country now finds water contamination or what a suitable ppb (parts per billion) ratio is for Panama. The last weekly measurement found high levels of the herbicide; although the government claims it is a low-toxicity, the levels detected are above the acceptable limits. Atrazine is still used in North America and levels in drinking water differ in different areas of the country and different times of the year. In areas where there are more corn crops and a greater application of the pesticide there is the possibility for higher runoff and therefore contamination. In Canada an acceptable amount in drinking water has been set at 5 parts per billion. In the United States, the level has been set at 3 parts per billion.
In our district we don’t get our water from the Los Santos River and so we aren’t affected by the water ban only a half hour down the road. We didn’t know anything of the water problems but there was a hint when we weren’t able to buy fountain pop or coffee while we were in Chitre on Saturday, from machines connected to running water. We also saw government trucks loaded with water bottles and the water trucks throughout Las Tablas. The last time this happened, in June, bottled water became difficult to find. President Varela has indicated that a committee has been formed to check the country’s water sources. Water from treatment plants, rural water, deep wells and artesian wells will be sampled to check the quality of the water that almost 4 million people are drinking. The samples will be tested within 25 limits, something that is only being done for the first time according to the President Varela. There is also a plan to bring awareness to the population about the pollution of waterways. In the meantime the government will continue to supply fresh water to the districts falling under the ban until the contamination has been cleared.
It does make one wonder how often water contamination has occurred in Panama and what was done about it and what farm/empresa will be the culprit this time…in the campo.