Puerto Rico: Assessing Septic Contamination and Water Quality in the Coastal Area

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In Puerto Rico and The Caribbean, the impact of fecal contamination in coastal waters and coral reefs is a topic of concern. Water pollution, and particularly sewage from land-based nonpoint sources, is one of the principal threats to coral reefs and its associated ecosystems, not only because of its long-term ecological impact to coral reefs (Prog et al., 1985), but also on water-based recreation . Recently, there has been open to public a new beach for the community in Ponce, Puerto Rico. El tuque, is a heavily populated and frequented area in the south coast of Puerto Rico. In a small island like this one, rapid urban development may increase discharged of wastewaters and watershed degradation which can also increase septic contamination. Previous studies have shown that coral reefs along significant portion of the northern region of Puerto Rico have been severely impacted by wastewater pollution from nonpoint sources. Few studies has been conducted in the south coast of Puerto Rico to see if there is fecal contamination by septic tanks.

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Septic system are the treatment system for wastewater, either for homes or centers. A septic tank is a container located underground. This, is dedicated to retain the water with fecal waste long enough, until they solidify. After the time required for the fecal solids to settle, they are released by a tube to the absorption soil. These residues can contain contaminants and bacteria that affect our health and the environment. The drainage area consists of a series of ditches containing perforated pipe. The liquid waste travels through the pipeline and is discharged into the underground. Once it is underground, these sewage begin natural chemical processes to decontaminate so it will not represent danger to adjacent communities. There are around 562,000 septic tanks across Puerto Rico, disposing about 170 million gallons of waste water daily. The majority of this septic tanks were constructed under unregulated conditions, and most of them placed in inadequate areas. If this tanks are not properly maintained, there can be leaks of this contaminated waters into the environment. The impact of leaking septic tanks on coastal coral reefs and recreational beaches has been poorly studied. Previous studies has shown that leaks in septic tanks is associated with an increase in fecal coliforms and Enterococci (both fecal contaminants) in near coast.

Water pollution caused by fecal contaminants is a serious issue because of the potential of contracting diseases from pathogens (disease causing organisms). Fecal coliforms are a group of microorganism that are considered to be present in the gut and feces of warm-blooded animals. Most coliform bacteria do not cause diseases. However, some strains can be harmful for humans if ingested, fecal coliform are often used as an indicator of fecal contamination. Results showing the presence of high amounts of coliform bacteria can be an indicator of other pathogenic bacteria like Enterococci and some of the diseases that this bacteria may cause are dysentery, urinary tract infections, diarrhea and vomiting. The minimum Enterococci densities for recreational waters established by the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board is 35 colony forming units (cfu) per 100 mL. If the densities of this microorganism is higher, it can be an indicative of sewage pollution impacting the area.

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