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Pollution Threatening Mexico’s Riviera Maya Region

February 7, 2011

Illicit drugs, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, highway chemicals and other substances have polluted the large aquifer beneath the “Riviera Maya” in Mexico, researchers reported in Sunday’s edition of the journal Environmental Pollution.

Water-filled caves resting below the popular tourist destination in the Yucatan Peninsula have been contaminated, and the polluted water flows through those caverns and into the Caribbean Sea, according to a press release from United Nation’s University (UNU).

That pollution, combined with overfishing, disease, and climate change, has resulted in the loss of as much as 50% of the coral reefs off the region’s coast since 1990.

Furthermore, with the area’s population expected to increase tenfold over the next two decades, the problems will likely become much worse by 2030, according to research was conducted by Chris D. Metcalfe, a professor at Trent University and a senior research fellow at the UNU’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health (INWEH) in Canada.

“These findings clearly underline the need for monitoring systems to pin-point where these aquifer pollutants are coming from,” Metcalfe said in a statement on Sunday. “As well, prevention and mitigation measures are needed to ensure that expanding development does not damage the marine environment and human health and, in turn, the region’s tourism-based economy.”

Among the substances discovered in the waters were pesticides, cocaine, caffeine, metabolized nicotine, painkillers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, ingredients common to deodorants and perfumes, and triclosan, an anti-bacterial agent used in toothpastes, hand sanitizers, and cleansers.

While water treatment systems are commonly used in the Riviera Maya region, they are “unlikely to remove all micro-contaminants,” according to the UNU study. In their paper, the authors recommend installing impermeable liners beneath golf courses and similar areas; creating drainage canals, retentions ponds, and treatment systems to deal with runoff in certain areas; and improved wastewater treatment procedures.

The study, which was funded by the World Bank, was part of the UNU-INWEH Caribbean Coastal Pollution Project (CCPP), which was launched in 2007 in order to help build improved assessment, monitoring and management of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and Persistent Toxic Substances (PTS) in Caribbean coastal ecosystems.

Image Caption: Sinkholes (or “cenotes”) provide a potential route for contamination of the flooded underground cave system aquifers of the Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: Hanneke van Lavieren, UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health

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