Catalyzing Solutions: The Impact of Your Family Holiday Vacation to Cancún, Mexico


Cancun, Mexico, receives its largest influx of American tourists every November and December. Many of these tourists come with the intention of partying the night away and/or swimming in all of the beautiful beaches and freshwater holes called cenotes. 

While there is nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy all the beauty that the Yucatan Peninsula has to offer, what many American tourists fail to realize is the long-lasting effects that their tourism has on the people and environment in the Yucatan region. This summer, I participated in a funded research experience for undergraduate students at Northern Illinois University, which took a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the impacts that tourism has on the freshwater system of the Yucatan Peninsula chemically, biologically, socially, and geologically.

 The Yucatan Peninsula is home to one of the largest karst aquifers in the world. This aquifer is the only freshwater source to the region, supplying drinking water to both tourists and locals. Although much of this aquifer is not exposed to air, cenotes, sinkholes that have formed from collapsed karst, give a glimpse of the aquifer below. Cenotes’ high permeability and increasing popularity among tourists as a sight in Cancun has increased concern that pharmaceutical pollutants like acetaminophen and norfloxacin have entered the cenotes by unfiltered wastewater. The aim of this project was to investigate whether detectable amounts of caffeine, acetaminophen, and norfloxacin have entered these cenotes through recent contamination along the Ruta de los Cenotes using modified U.S. EPA Method 1694. Caffeine was chosen because it is not found naturally in water and is also a recent indicator of anthropogenic contamination, while acetaminophen and norfloxacin are common ingredients in pain and Urinary Tract Infection medicines. 

After 10 weeks, research showed that 50 percent of the samples showed probable detection of caffeine, which can be linked to recent contamination from urine. This project will continue through summer 2019 in order to collect and analyze more data in order to draw a more conclusive link of tourism to contamination of freshwater. For more information, visit 

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