Puerto Rico and Big Pharma Pollution
History of pharmaceutical industry[edit | edit source]
For many people, it was only when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a high-end Category 4 storm on September 20, 2017, that they became aware of the long impact of the pharmaceutical industry on its residents. The Caribbean island of 9,100 square kilometers, located about 1,600 kilometers from the United States mainland, is a U.S. territory populated by more than 3 million U.S. citizens. Yet it is also home to about 50 drug manufacturing companies, including huge multinational firms like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson, Novartis, Abbvie, Pfizer and Merck. Puerto Rico’s now-expired favorable tax laws and comparatively lax environmental regulation attracted the drug companies, as well as some 30 medical device manufacturers, to set up operations since the 1970s.
Well before the storm hit, as the tax incentives phased out, some pharmaceutical companies began to pull out too – leaving the Puerto Rican economy in crisis and leading to debt default that remained a looming burden even as the 250-kph wind and waves hit Yabucoa and battered across the island. Yet even in 2016, 72.4 percent of island exports were in the drug sector and amounted to USD$14.5 billion, followed by chemicals and medical devices. Shortages caused by the storm made others take notice of the degree to which the health care sector relies on Puerto Rico, and not just the other way around. What also became more obvious was the long history of environmental damage to the island’s people.
An island in environmental crisis[edit | edit source]
One of the most comprehensive inquiries into long-overlooked Big Pharma pollution in Puerto Rico comes from anthropologist Alexa Dietrich, the author of “The Drug Company Next Door.” The book details impacts to the island’s historically clean and plentiful aquifers, the coastal damage from industrial sludge and the effects on wildlife as well as people. In the small town of Nocorá alone were more than a dozen drug factories representing five multinationals, the highest concentration per capita of such factories in the world. Toxic byproducts pollute the air, water and soil, leaving a stench in the air.
As early as 1974, fishermen from Manati complained about smelly, viscous brown discharge coming from Merck facilities as well as pollution from the nearby Bristol Myers plant. Injection wells at Abbott were used to discharge untreated industrial water into aquifers, which were already compromised by the demands of the plants – leaving at risk the communities that depend on water for life and livelihood.
In October 2016, one year before the storm, Pfizer was fined $190,000 for failing to disclose hazardous chemical storage at its Barceloneta manufacturing facility where Glucotrol XL, Procardia XL and Cardura XL are made. Pfizer has paid more than $4.3 billion in fines since 2000, according to Violation Tracker, for environmental violations as well as false product claims, bribery and kickbacks, and other offenses. The total includes a $318,000 judgment in 2014 for Clean Air Act violations at the Barceloneta site.
Across the decades, the environmental toll mounted for Puerto Ricans. As of March 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed 24 Superfund sites on the island. Examples include the Upjohn facility at Barceloneta, where carbon tetrachloride contamination dates to the 1980s. Today, there are 13 pharmaceutical firms with operations located there – as is the Florida Afuera Superfund landfill site.
Research at an offshore ocean dump site near Arecibo in 1980 showed waste plumes and microscopic-level bacterial changes; by January 2018, scientists releasing the Antimicrobial Resistance Benchmark report detailed a lack of Big Pharma transparency on antibiotics discharged into the environment via manufacturing waste water management practices that increase human risks to drug-resistant infection.
Impacts of Hurricane Maria[edit | edit source]
Hurricane Maria was a devastating storm with long-term impacts likely to forever change Puerto Rico, beginning with the departure of an estimated 135,000 Puerto Ricans who fled to the U.S. mainland. That’s based on a March 2018 study by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, while Florida officials in December put the number at a much higher 269,000 to their state alone.
Six months after the storm, the death toll remained unclear. An official count of 64 fatalities is widely disputed, with some estimates at more than 1,000 when compared with death rates in previous years. A study launched by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in late 2017, funded by Puerto Rican officials, is designed to more accurately assess the number of casualties.
Damage estimates exceed $100 billion, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved only $15.8 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico and the hard-hit U.S. Virgin Islands combined. At least 93,000 people still had no power by March, many are without water, and about 3,500 are still living in hotels. Bridges and other infrastructure were destroyed, and businesses – including the many pharmaceutical companies that long contributed to the island’s environmental issues – struggled to come back online.
Public health and pollution fallout[edit | edit source]
Some consequences in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria were obvious. Raw sewage in flooded streets exposed people to contamination and disease; even before the storm, a May 2017 report on Puerto Rico’s water found 69.4 percent of the population got their water from systems that violated U.S. federal health standards. “Water contaminated with livestock waste, human sewage, chemicals, and other contaminants can lead to illness when used for drinking, bathing, and other hygiene activities,” the EPA warned in an October 2017 statement. The EPA said it was assessing Superfund site damage.
Desperate for any sources, the Puerto Rican water utility pumped water from a well in the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which had been closed off to avoid human exposure to carcinogens. Food shortages, and barely-operating hospitals and health care facilities, added to the health impacts. Even the stress has created a public health problem, with suicide calls more than double the average. Doctors have lost track of tens of thousands of patients and in those they see, there are spikes of 10 percent or more in cardiac arrest, Type I diabetes, stroke-related brain hemorrhages and more.
Dietrich, writing with co-authors in October 2017, detailed how the disaster was made worse by a confluence of factors: industrialization, lax environmental regulation and commonly issued waivers to accommodate corporations, not people. “Industrialization brought polluting and resource-hungry industries, such as pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical producers, that have seriously compromised air and water quality,” they said. In other words, the decades of environmental neglect before Hurricane Maria created the perfect recipe for disaster. One day in 2017, that disaster came.
Rebuilding a sustainable Puerto Rico[edit | edit source]
A 15-page draft report provided to The New Republic in December lists a multitude of concerns. Diesel generators in the absence of electricity are creating enough air pollution to spike respiratory illness. A five-story pile of coal ash next to a community of 45,000 was left uncovered during the storm, and the heavy metals may have washed into soil, groundwater, drinking water sources, but no one really knows.
The drug manufacturers – ironically, committed to health care in their more profitable ventures and places – are by no means responsible for all of Puerto Rico’s economic woes or environmental crises. Yet human rights activists are asking when polluters will be held accountable and citizens receive justice.
For now, a new battle is emerging as the island looks to restore and rebuild. Some are concerned that the pre-existing debt crisis has made privatization, beginning with the power company, the remedy for Hurricane Maria impacts. Roads, schools, ports and parks may follow, and many Puerto Ricans are concerned about land grabs and other “opportunities” for even more corporations that disregard them.