Op-ed column: What are we REALLY drinking?

According to New York state water quality data, and according to the data compiled by the EPA and gi

In the waning months of 2009, The New York Times published a comprehensive series of articles on the subject “toxic waters” in the United States. The articles, by Charles Duhigg and others, explore the inadequacy of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act originally passed in 1974 to protect our drinking water from chemical pollutants.

Relying on data supplied by the states, by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and by the Environmental Working Group, the series claims that the federal law is so out of date that “the water Americans drink can pose what scientists say are serious health risks — and still be legal.” (New York Times, Dec. 17, 2009).

Since the Times Web site includes a searchable data base of water quality reports from most of the states, I did the obvious thing for one of my inquisitive nature. I went to nytimes.com/water-data, where I found a list of states that had supplied water reports to the Times. I clicked on “New York” and when our state came up, with an alphabetic list of counties, I clicked on “Schenectady County.” There we were, listed by water purveyors such as the city of Schenectady, the town of Niskayuna, the town of Glenville, Rotterdam, and so on.

And, all is well, isn’t it? After all, we drink clean water from our Great Flats Aquifer, a “sole source aquifer” (as designated by EPA) that is carefully protected by the Intermunicipal Watershed Rules and Regulations Board, created by the state in 1991.

Guess again

What did I find? Well, according to New York state water quality data, and according to the data compiled by the EPA and given to the Environmental Working Group, all is not quite as well as it could or should be for those of us who drink the water in Schenectady County.

The county, as we well know, has been home to major industrial and manufacturing interests for more than 100 years. I can list General Electric, Schenectady International (now calling itself SI), and a host of smaller companies.

We even had a military installation, the Naval Depot off Route 5 in Glenville.

The county is home to seven Class 2 Superfund sites, three of them over the aquifer. A Class 2 Superfund site is one considered a significant threat to public health; the three over the aquifer are GE, River Road; the former GE Riverview plant (Campbell Road); and SI, Rotterdam Junction.

These Superfund sites are actually over a very sensitive part of the aquifer, a recharge zone.

Public sources of drinking water are protected and regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. The Times articles analyzed pollutants in waters regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, using two standards, those adopted by the EPA in 1974 but which have not been updated since 2000, and those stricter health standards for polluting chemicals developed by the EPA but considered non-enforceable.

Looking at the consumer confidence reports that water purveyors like the city of Schenectady must supply annually to customers of their drinking water, it seems as if there are no problems with our drinking water. Any pollutants detected are within legal limits, as set by the EPA. The city’s reports are reassuring.

Another story

But reports from the Environmental Working Group (a non-profit database organization quoted extensively in the Times articles) tell a different story. The EWG says more than 1,000 tests conducted between 2004 and 2009, by the city water system and the state, show drinking water in the city contains six chemicals that exceed health guidelines. The national average is four. Twelve chemical pollutants are found; the national average is eight.

Of the six chemicals exceeding health guidelines, five are byproducts of disinfecting the city’s drinking water. The sixth pollutant is trichloroethylene or TCE, a known carcinogen.

Other water systems in the county, such as Rotterdam and Niskayuna, show similar results — under EPA guidelines, chemical pollutants are within legal limits. Under the EWG guidelines, some chemical pollutants exceed health limits. In Rotterdam’s water, for example, the EWG found 16 chemical pollutants, 11 of them exceeding health guidelines, including radium and TCE. The other pollutants are byproducts of the disinfection process.

In Niskayuna’s water, the EPA found four chemical pollutants to be above the guidelines for health — alpha particle activity, combined radium, radium 226 and radium 228. The EWG found 11 chemical pollutants that exceeded health levels, including byproducts of water disinfection as well as the radioactive elements mentioned above.

To be sure, some chemical pollutants come from natural sources — nitrates, for instance, which can be found naturally in soil and in yard, garden and field run-offs from fertilizer. Or barium and manganese, which can occur naturally. But TCE, an industrial chemical, was used for years at the Naval Depot in Scotia, soaking into the ground and the aquifer, creating a plume of TCE which has shown up in Schenectady wells. Schenectady County has been trying to get the property cleaned up since 1994, and now has an agreement with both the state DEC and the federal government to get the TCE cleaned up.

This is all very confusing for an English major, I must admit. My years of studying Latin and Greek, however, have come in handy in getting my mouth around such words as haloacetic acids, didromodicloromethane, or trialomethanes (all byproducts of water disinfection by chlorine or a chlorine-like chemical).

Cleanup efforts

And, I guess I should say, in the face of the reports I’ve read and the data I’ve tried to absorb, that the shopping mall-aquifer battles are long over, the Superfund sites are being cleaned up, the EPA, after a whole decade of inaction (the Bush years), is finally updating its list of chemical pollutants that pose health dangers in our drinking water, and is finally revising the safety limits of chemicals like TCE.

Lisa Jackson, an EPA administrator, announced on March 22 that the EPA is developing a broad new set of strategies to address contaminants in drinking water. One is to address contaminants as a group, rather than as individual contaminants of concern, a much slower process.

In a recent finalized review of existing drinking water standards, the EPA has determined that the science allows for stricter regulations for the carcinogenic compounds tetrachloroethylene, TCE, acrylamide and epichlorohydrin. The first two are industrial compounds; the second two are impurities introduced into drinking water during the treatment process. Of the four compounds in this group, only TCE has shown up in the county’s ground water.

The EPA prints a disclaimer at the beginning of its report of violations for each of the water supply systems it regulates, noting that the agency “is aware of inaccuracies and underreporting of some data in the Safe Drinking Water Information System.” This is not particularly reassuring to someone like myself, who has forsaken the bottled water habit for good old Schenectady tap water drawn from our aquifer.

A few questions keep picking away at my brain. Why do the chemicals we use to disinfect our public drinking water produce chemical byproducts that can harm us? Why are the rates for certain types of cancer 30 percent or more higher in Schenectady County than in most of the other counties in the state?

Questions remain

We don’t know why the (age-adjusted) rate of bladder cancer in women in our county is one of the highest in the state. Nor do we know why the rate of renal cancer in men in our county is one of the highest in the state. These are data from the state Department of Health. (see the data by county here).

Is there a link between bladder cancer and the presence of disinfection byproducts in our drinking water? The EPA certainly thinks so, although it also admits that the research results are in certain cases contradictory. Schenectady water tests well under the limits established by the EPA for these particular byproducts. Our drinking water may be legal, but is it safe?

I do know that our city’s drinking water is tested for 113 contaminants that are not found at all, such as vinyl chloride, Atrazine, Silvex, Aldicarb, Styrene, Toluene, Toxaphene and PCBs.

And I’m grateful that in our industrialized county, with major threats to our aquifer such as high-speed rail lines, chemical and industrial plants, some very nasty chemical pollutants have not shown up in our drinking water supply.

I hope they never do.

Patricia O’Reilly Rush lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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