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Blair Horner: Something In The Water

Earlier this summer, the state Health Department issued proposed drinking water standards for certain types of contaminants that have been found in the drinking water supplies serving millions of New Yorkers.

The standards focused on three chemical threats: 1,4-dioxane, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).   PFOA and PFOS endanger public health at very low levels of exposure, resulting in developmental effects to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high-cholesterol, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.  Studies find that exposure to 1,4-dioxane can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver effects.

According to an analysis of the most recent government data available, the drinking water of over 2.8 million New Yorkers has levels of 1,4-dioxane that are above the most stringent levels recommended for safety. This is also the case for PFOA and PFOS for over 1.4 million New Yorkers.  And that’s only for communities that have conducted testing.  One estimate is that 2.5 million New Yorkers in communities with 10,000 people or less have not yet had their water tested for PFOA and related chemicals.

The state Health Department has recommended that the drinking water supply of any New Yorker does not contain any more than 10 parts per trillion of PFOA, 10 parts per trillion of PFOS, and 1 part per billion of 1,4 –dioxane.

While those levels are small, according to leading environmental and health groups, the proposed levels are not small enough. 

The groups are calling for maximum contamination levels that are the most protective of human health and are in line with the latest science and available detection and treatment technologies; in terms of PFOA and PFOS, the groups have urged that the maximum level be no higher than 2 parts per trillion (combined) – one fifth of the proposed level advanced by the Health Department, and that the acceptable level of 1,4-dioxane be no more than 0.3 parts per billion or one-third the level in the Department’s proposal.

And the impact of unregulated contamination of drinking water supplies has real life consequences.  In Hoosick Falls, New York, Saint Gobain Performance Plastics used PFOA for years in their manufacturing process. Many in the town and village became sick with diseases linked to exposure to the chemicals. Other communities with PFOA water contamination problems include Petersburgh and Newburgh.

If PFOA, PFOS and 1,4 dioxane had been regulated years ago, communities may not have had to face the pollution problems they are currently contending with.  Unfortunately, too often steps to protect water aren’t taken until after a water contamination crisis has already unfolded.

This is a vicious cycle that the public is counting on New York to break.  New Yorkers can’t wait for people to get sick from exposure to dangerous chemicals to take action.

New York has pledged $5 billion in water improvements, but that’s just a drop in the bucket.  Water infrastructure needs alone are huge in New York state – it’s been estimated that over the next 20 years, New York will need to invest $80 billion to make all the needed repairs, upgrades, and replacements – and that doesn’t include the costs associated with treating chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane.  More state support will be needed.

In addition, there is much more to do than simply spending money (although that is needed).  One key step would be to expand regulation of contaminants already found in drinking water.  There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market that are unregulated, which means that even though they may not be safe for public health, they can be in our products or water anyway. PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane are only the start.  New York must test for unregulated chemicals, set drinking water standards, and ban the use of chemicals that pose health risks.

Last week, New York moved one step closer to putting these standards into effect, with the closure of the comment period for their proposed regulations.  Environmental and public health groups are calling for the governor and the Health Department to move forward with drinking water standards that align with the latest science.

The public has the basic right and expectation that the water from their taps will be safe to drink. The Health Department must rely on the best science in guiding its decisions and move quickly to tackle other hazardous chemicals that threaten drinking water supplies. 

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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