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NYPIRG Issues Report On Emerging Contaminants In Drinking Water

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WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

The New York Public Interest Research Group has a new report showing the prevalence of emerging contaminants detected in the state’s public drinking water supplies. With a focus the past few years on PFOA and PFOS from Hoosick Falls to Newburgh, NYPIRG highlights other emerging contaminants.

NYPIRG’s report, “What’s in My Water,” focuses on more than 20 emerging contaminants in addition to PFOA, PFOA and 1,4-Dioxane that the federal government requires be tested in water systems serving 10,000 or more residents. Liz Moran is NYPIRG environmental policy director and the report’s lead author.

“But that leaves 6.4 million New Yorkers completely in the dark about what emerging contaminants may be in their drinking water supplies,” Moran says. “These are New Yorkers that rely on private wells, which have effectively no regulations, and New Yorkers on small public water systems, like Hoosick Falls.”

The state Department of Health does not regulate private wells.

“We found that seven different emerging contaminants, which does include PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-Dioxane, were found at levels that exceed EPA’s health guidance; they call it a reference concentration,” Moran says.

She says the report is being released to underscore NYPIRG’s call for New York to establish drinking water standards for at least PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-Dioxane, and to begin the process to develop standards for other emerging contaminants. In December, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council recommended maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, for the three chemicals — an MCL, of 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, each, and an MCL of 1 part per billion for 1,4-Dioxane.

A DOH spokeswoman says, “The State has taken unprecedented action and made historic investments in protecting drinking water through the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act which includes $200 million currently available to communities to manage emerging contaminants and an additional $500 million in this year’s budget.  The recommendations from the Drinking Water Quality Council go above and beyond New York’s already protective water quality measures and are being reviewed thoroughly and responsibly. We will review NYPIRG’s report.”

NYPIRG’s review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s so-called Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule data, from 2013-2015, found that 176 water systems detected one or more emerging contaminants, affecting nearly 16 million New Yorkers.

“So we found that there were 16 distinct emerging contaminants that were detected in the Hudson Valley,” says Moran. “Like numerous regions in the state, strontium and chromium-6 were the most frequently detected contaminants.” 

Strontium is a naturally occurring element in the environment. The EPA has a health reference level at 1500 ppb. NYPIRG’s report shows that the highest detected level of strontium was 2660 ppb in the Station Road Square water system in Orange County, a small public water system. The second highest was 2600 ppb in the Clifton Park water system in Albany County. Moran says EPA does not have a health reference level for chromium-6, which is linked with stomach cancer and other illnesses.

“Hexavalent chromium is the other term it goes by,” Moran says. “It’s a chemical that became notorious after Erin Brockovich looked into the chemical in Hinkley, California.”

California has a public health goal for chromium-6 of 0.02 ppb, and had a MCL of 10 ppb. Moran says every New York detection exceeded California’s health goal. In the Hudson Valley, the most detections were in Orange and Westchester Counties. Chromium-6 occurs naturally in the environment, but higher levels can be found due to industrial pollution.

The third most frequently detected contaminant overall was chlorate, which is formed as a byproduct of the drinking water disinfection process. Chlorate can also be released in drinking water from the reactions of other compounds, such as those in some herbicides, fireworks and other explosives. Again, Moran:

“When it comes to emerging contaminants, when it comes to chemicals, we need to start taking a precautionary approach,” Moran says. “And what that means is, one, if a chemical has not been proven to be safe, it shouldn’t be freely on the market; and, two, we need to do more to protect drinking water at its source, which means preserving land in critical watershed areas.”

NYPIRG’s report stresses that the existence of an emerging contaminant in a drinking water supply does not necessarily put consumers’ health at risk; however the group urges public officials to do more to prevent contamination. For example, Moran says there should be more statewide testing.

“We need to test for every drinking water system in New York state,” Moran says. “The more data we have the better, and the more informed the public is, the better.”

The report found that Long Island has, by far, the most detections of emerging contaminants found in drinking water, followed closely by the Hudson Valley.

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