Water supply in Zimapán, Hidalgo, contaminated with arsenic

The natural composition of the soil is contaminating the water supply of Zimapán, which exceeds the maximum levels of arsenic concentration recommended by the World Health Organization
Water supply in Zimapán, Hidalgo, contaminated with arsenic
Zimapan dam, in Hidalgo – Photo by CUARTOSCURO
27/03/2018
11:47
Zimapán, Hidalgo
Dinorath Mota, Correspondent for EL UNIVERSAL
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Edgar has troubles with his sight and has white spots on his hands. He knows his ailments are due to the high content of arsenic in the water, which could eventually give him cancer or gangrene yet he doesn't seem terribly concerned. He has lived in this town all his life.

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(Arsenic poisoning may cause skin problems - Photo: Ivan Stephens/EL UNIVERSAL)

Zimapán is located in Sierra Gorda, Hidalgo, a semi-desert land with a population of 40,000 – most of whom are employed in the mining industry. Here, the natural composition of the soil is contaminating the water supply of the town with metals.

Zimapán is only known for two things: for being the place where the chemical element of atomic number 23 – vanadium – was discovered, and for having high concentrations of arsenic and lead, similar to the cases in Chile and Bangladesh.

The magnitude of the problem

According to Chile's Ministry of Health, during the 60's the region of Antofagasta, Chile, became contaminated with high levels of arsenic, 80 times above the recommended limit established by the World Health Organization (WHO).  In Bangladesh, the NGO Human Rights Watch reported that the concentration of the metal was five times above the WHO's limit.

The arsenic concentration in the water reserves supplying drinking water to Zimapán's population is almost 100 times higher than the maximum limit recommended by the WHO, which equals to 0.01 milligrams per liter.

The presence of arsenic in the water in both, Bangladesh and Chile was cause for worldwide concern but no one is looking at Zimapán.

Origins of the finding

The presence of arsenic in the water supplies of Zimapán was discovered in 1992 when the water was being tested for cholera. María Aurora Armienta, who was back then in charge of the investigation for the Geophysics Insitute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), reported that the main contamination source was natural in origin and that out of the five water reservoirs, the one registering the highest levels of arsenic contamination was the one located in the community of El Muhi – the main water source of the center of the region.

Francisco Patiño Cardona, scientist and researcher at the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT), claims it's "criminal" that no one has turned to look at Zimapán.

“If someone says there is no impact on the health of the population, they are lying,” he claims, adding that there have to be repercussions on the health of the population for consuming contaminated water their entire life.

Arsenic poisoning causes skin problems, and often leads to several types of cancer, according to the scientist.

Government's response

For his part, Jesús Cruz, head of the Health Commission of Zimapán, agency part of the Ministry of Health, claims it's not his responsibility to launch an investigation on the matter and that the final decision on the situation has to come from the Minister of Health of the state. He states that the diseases most of the population of Zimapán suffer are infectious and that there are no “scientific grounds” to forbid inhabitants from using, or drinking, the water.

EL UNIVERSAL took three samples of Zimapán's water and sent them to the test lab Agrolab, Análisis Técnicos S.A. de C.V., certified by the Mexican Accreditation Entity (EMA).

According to the results, the sample taken from the El Muhi water reserve contains 94 times the recommended allowable limit, that is, 0.940 arsenic milligrams per liter. The second was taken from treated water coming from the water treatment plant "María Aurora Armienta" and it has 0.719 milligrams per liter. The third comes from the street José María Morelos, and this was found to be arsenic-free.

The problem, according to the locals, is that they never know from which water reserve the water reaching their homes will come from.

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(Water treatment plant “María Aurora Armienta” - Photo: Ivan Stephens/EL UNIVERSAL)

A call for help
The former Mayor of Zimapán, José María Lozano (2009-2012) was one of the first to try and find ways to offer clean water for the people and commissioned the construction of the water treatment plant “María Aurora Armienta,” which began operations in 2011. However, he claims the problem is that the supply network has sediments, which contaminate the water as it flows through the pipelines. This is why he says the support of international organizations is needed to change the entire water supply network.

During the administration of the next Mayor, Carlos Ortíz (2012-2016), the water treatment plant operated “intermittently”, according to former Mayor Lozano.

In 2017, town councilor Erick Marte began to seek financing from international organizations but while the help arrives, life in Zimapán goes on. Edgar is focused on his work to provide for his family – everyone here has their own problems and arsenic isn't one of them.

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