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Protecting New York's drinking water

As 2021 heads toward its conclusion, Governor Hochul faces a public health decision deadline. Under New York State law, legislation that was approved during the 2021 legislative session must be sent to the governor for her approval by the end of the calendar year. Nearly 900 bills were approved by both houses of the Legislature during the 2021 legislative session and this week many bills moved to the governor’s desk for her consideration.

There are critically important issues that remain undecided as of mid-December. One example is legislation to better monitor the state’s drinking water supplies.

Lawmakers approved legislation to close a longstanding federal loophole that excludes public water systems serving fewer than 10,000 residents from having to test for emerging contaminants.

Emerging contaminants are unregulated chemicals that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes may have negative health consequences and are suspected to be in drinking water supplies. A recent analysis of EPA data by the NY Public Interest Research Group found that 176 water systems, impacting 16 million New Yorkers, detected one or more emerging contaminants. Every region in New York State had been impacted.

However, this is based on limited data. Over 2,000 water systems, serving nearly 2.5 million New Yorkers, have not had any emerging contaminant testing of toxic chemicals on the most recent federal emerging contaminant testing list.

In response, state government vowed to close the loophole that exempts small water systems from testing for emerging contaminants. In 2017, legislation was approved that directed the Department of Health to create an emerging contaminant monitoring list for New York and require testing in all systems regardless of size.

Four years later, the law hasn’t yet been fully realized.

This past month, EPA announced that PFOA and PFOS, two toxic chemicals that have polluted drinking water across New York, are far more dangerous than the agency previously thought. PFOA and PFOS are just two out of over 9,000 chemicals in the PFAS family, many of which are linked to similar harmful health effects, persist in the environment, and build up in the human body. 29 PFAS are currently detectable in drinking water using EPA-approved methods.

After reviewing the latest scientific evidence, EPA determined that safe levels of exposure to PFOA and PFOS are actually thousands of times lower than their current health advisory level.

Yet despite the risk to public health, New York only requires testing and notification for two PFAS chemicals in drinking water (PFOA and PFOS). There are no drinking water protections for the other 27 detectable PFAS, despite well-documented risks to human health from these chemicals as well.

New York learned about the testing loophole the hard way. In 2015, it became public knowledge that a small community in upstate New York, Hoosick Falls, had unsafe levels of the chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), exposure to which has been linked to developmental effects to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high-cholesterol, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.

Hoosick Falls has a population of approximately 3,500 residents – so it didn’t learn of the toxic chemical in its water supply that was making residents sick as a result of EPA or New York State required testing. Instead, Hoosick Falls discovered this chemical because of the initiative of a private citizen concerned about illnesses in the community.

The longer New York goes without statewide emerging contaminant testing of public drinking water supplies, the longer residents remain in the dark about the quality of their water, and the greater the chances residents get exposed to unsafe levels of contaminants. (By the way, to see what contaminants are found in drinking water supplies, NYPIRG offers that information on its website.)

The state Department of Health could require testing of these chemicals, but it has failed to use its existing authority to comprehensively do so. As a result, this past June the State Legislature approved legislation that requires every water utility to test for the remaining 27 PFAS chemicals as well as testing for 13 other contaminants identified by the US EPA as posing risks to human health.

Governor Kathy Hochul has not yet signed this bill, but the legislation was delivered to her office last week. The clock is now ticking on that drinking water testing legislation. It’s clear that the longer New Yorkers are exposed to PFAS or other contaminants in their drinking water, the greater the likelihood that such exposure could make them sick. Requiring comprehensive testing is the first step toward protecting New Yorkers. If you don’t know you have a problem, you can’t address it. Let’s hope that first step is taken.

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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