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Blair Horner: What's In New York's Drinking Water?

States in the northeast, including New York, are lucky to have access to an abundance of fresh water supplies. New York’s fresh water supplies were critical to the state’s earliest economic development – for example, access to the Great Lakes, the Hudson River, and the building of the Erie Canal. Since colonial times, those clean drinking water supplies helped make possible the rapid growth in the state’s population.

But due to emerging threats – primarily in the form of a rapidly heating planet and contamination resulting from an industrial legacy – that natural bounty is endangered.

For example, global warming has made the planet hotter. A hotter planet triggers the growth of algal blooms that can make freshwater toxic. In recent years, as temperatures soar, algal blooms are developing like never before and threaten the drinking water supplies of upstate communities that rely on surface water.

In addition, the careless handling and disposal of industrial chemicals has resulted in some drinking water supplies becoming unsafe for human consumption. For example, communities in and around the village of Hoosick Falls, Newburgh, and Long Island, have had to respond to drinking water contamination from the improper use and disposal of PFOA and PFOS.

What can New Yorkers do?

A new report from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) answered that question when it documented the prevalence of emerging chemical contaminants detected in the state’s public drinking water supplies that serve some 16 million New Yorkers.

The most notable recent industrial threats have been the result of the unsafe handling of three specific emerging contaminants – PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane. But there are over 20 additional emerging contaminants that were reviewed in the report. Those additional contaminants are currently tested in local drinking water supplies under a mandate by the federal government. Communities with populations of 10,000 or more are required to conduct this testing. Smaller communities, unless otherwise required to test by federal regulators, (and those residents utilizing private wells) are exempt from testing for contamination in their drinking water supplies.

Those testing results are publicly available, but difficult to find. The report reviewed the federal information and analyzed the detection levels for the chemicals that were found in in the state’s public drinking water supplies.

The report found that 176 water systems detected one or more emerging contaminants, affecting nearly 16 million New Yorkers. (If you want to find more information on your community’s drinking water, NYPIRG provides a nifty tool on its website.)

Specifically, the report found:

  1. 176 water systems detected one or more federally listed emerging contaminants, affecting nearly 16 million New Yorkers.
  2. The Long Island region has, by far, the most systems that detected emerging contaminants.
  3. Seven of the contaminants were detected at levels above EPA’s health guidance levels.
  4. 6.4 million New York State residents served by smaller public systems or private wells are consuming water that has not been tested for emerging contaminants.

In addition to identifying emerging contaminant detections in New York, the report offered a roadmap to prevent drinking water contamination. New York State already has many tools at its disposal to test statewide for emerging contaminants, regulate chemicals in drinking water, and prevent contamination to begin with before it pollutes drinking water.
The report recommends:

  1. The New York State Department of Health immediately begin statewide testing of emerging contaminants that have already shown up in New York water systems for every public water system, regardless of size.
  2. That the state establish stringent drinking water standards for chemicals that may be unsafe for public health and that it require testing for private household wells.
  3. That the state create a single user-friendly statewide public database for drinking water information.
  4. And finally, that state and federal regulators adopt precautionary approaches to source water protection and chemicals by prohibiting use of chemicals until they can be proven safe.

The planet is heating up and an industrial legacy continues to threaten New York’s drinking water. It’s time to act to preserve the state’s water supplies for generations to come.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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