Blair Horner: Will Water Regulations Improve?

Oct 1, 2018

One of New York’s greatest natural resources is its abundance of water supplies.  But the state’s industrial history has resulted in serious threats to using that water for drinking. Those threats should be checked by government regulations, but in far too many cases, they are not.

Drinking water regulation is organized around “regulated contaminants” and “unregulated contaminants.” Regulated contaminants are those for which the government has set health standards.  Regular testing allows government regulators to identify drinking water supplies that contain contaminants that pose a threat to the public.  Unregulated contaminants are substances that can pose health threats, but neither federal nor state government regulators have set safety standards.

Unregulated contaminants that are well known to pose health threats are PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane.  Due to their common use in water-resistant, stain-proof and nonstick products as well as firefighting foam, PFOA and PFOS are increasingly being detected in New York’s drinking water.  1,4-dioxane is an industrial solvent manufactured in large quantities and in widespread use.  Decades of improper use, disposal and storage have led to widespread drinking water contamination.  PFOA and PFOS endanger public health at very low levels of exposure, resulting in developmental effects to fetuses, kidney damage and cancer.  Studies find that exposure to 1,4-dioxane can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver effects, which has led EPA to designate the chemical as a likely human carcinogen.

The threats from these chemicals, and others, are the reason why Governor Cuomo established the New York Drinking Water Quality Council to make recommendations that set the safety standards for certain unregulated toxic chemicals.

The Council is supposed to make its first round of recommendations this October 2nd.  In an effort to show the magnitude of the threats, researchers at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) reviewed the test data for public drinking water supplies in New York to see the extent of PFOA/PFOS and 1,4-dioxane contamination. 

NYPIRG’s review of public water systems in New York found that many communities have reportable levels PFOA/PFOS or 1,4-dioxane in their drinking water. NYPIRG reviewed the most recent data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The review showed that drinking water for over 2.8 million New Yorkers has levels of 1,4-dioxane above .3 parts per billion, and drinking water for over 1.4 million New Yorkers contained levels of PFOA/PFOS above the most stringent levels recommended. 

The review of communities showed that 49 public water systems have 1,4-dioxane in their drinking water supplies that meet EPA minimum reporting limits.  There are over 31 systems in which the amounts have exceeded the limits recommended by public health and environmental groups.  Eight public water systems have PFOA or PFOS in their drinking water supplies that meet EPA minimum reporting limits.  All eight of those systems reported levels that exceed recommended limits, and four exceeded the EPA’s current health advisory threshold.

With millions of New Yorkers’ drinking water supplies at risk, the Drinking Water Quality Council should take the important step of setting stringent public-health based safety standards.  PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane, which can cause several types of cancer and other diseases, have harmed communities from Long Island to Hoosick Falls.  The only way to ensure every community is safe from these dangerous chemicals – meaning every water supply is tested and response protocols are in place - is to establish health standards.

Whether that will happen, time will tell.  But what is clear is that New York’s precious natural resource – its water supplies – must be protected.  As the planet heats up from global warming, fresh water supplies will be more and more at risk.  Places like New York must do all they can to protect its drinking water. 

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

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