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  • People wait in line for food at a food truck being run by a generator at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 13, 2017.

    People wait in line for food at a food truck being run by a generator at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 13, 2017. | Photo: Reuters

Published 15 October 2017

"I've never seen this before," Martyn Smith, a professor of toxicology at the University of California at Berkeley, told CNN.

Desperate Puerto Rico residents are drinking contaminated water as 36 percent of the island’s homes remain without potable water.

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The Environment Protection Agency, EPA, confirmed that residents are now filling jugs and buckets with water from several Superfund sites, or “waterways,” where “hazardous commercial and industrial wastes have been ... dumped.”

Citizens are taking water from the Caguas, San German, Dorado, Cabo Rojo and Maunabo Superfund-designated sites, among others scattered throughout the island. The Sewer and Aqueduct Association, a government authority, is distributing water from the Dorado well. Most of these localities, including San German, are contaminated with tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene solvents used to degrease and clean industrial machinery, as well as to dry clean clothes.

"I've never seen this before," Martyn Smith, a professor of toxicology at the University of California at Berkeley, told CNN.

"There are thousands of chemicals ... that could be in a Superfund site."

The EPA advised residents “against tampering with sealed and locked wells or drinking from these wells, as it may be dangerous to people’s health.” Yet, people in Puerto Rico have no other choice.

Homes have no water and stores, especially in rural areas where the problem is worst, have run out of water or are charging US$8 in some cases for a six pack of water. The island’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, said the government is actively suing 100 businesses for spiking the price of water and other essentials in the wake of Hurricane Maria. He asked the Department of Justice to investigate the matter.

The Good Samaritan Hospital in Aguadilla has resorted to hiring security companies to escort water into the hospital, according to Inside Climate News.

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In addition to extreme water shortages, there are also food shortages. The World Central Kitchen’s contract with FEMA expired this week, meaning it can no longer distribute the 70,000 hot meals to residents it was once able to. FEMA said it’s providing 200,000 meals per day and that volunteer groups are cooking 300,000 meals.

People are rationing what little food they have left from three weeks ago when Hurricane Maria first hit. Most residents are forced to buy expensive, imported foods as the island’s agricultural sector was nearly wiped out. Farmers have lost US$1.8 billion in crops so far.

Generators are also starting to fail in Puerto Rico, where 85 percent of the island is still without electricity. Buying a new generator, which costs around US$6,000, is prohibitively expensive for most on the island, who earn about US$18,000 annually on average.

Roberto Jose Thomas Ramirez, general coordinator of the Eco-Development Initiative, told Inside Climate News, “Maria didn't just hit the island and strip the trees and the infrastructure … It [showed] the inequalities and injustices that existed for many years."  

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