When you turn on the tap in your home to get a drink of water or to wash your dishes or cook your food or bathe and shower, you naturally expect that water to be safe.
We here in New York always hear about how we have the safest water, thanks to the highest standards for quality.
But blind acceptance of government claims is always dangerous, as is assuming beliefs that once held true will always hold true.
A new report issued by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) about emerging contaminants in the state’s drinking supply should wake us from our complacency about our water supply and inspire citizens and lawmakers to demand stricter standards and measures to protect our collective health.
The report, entitled, “What’s in My Water?”, gathers together public information on water quality in the state, focusing on 20 so-called “emerging contaminants,” chemicals from the post-industrial age that include PFOA and PFOS (the category of chemicals found in Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh and Newburgh) and 1,4-Dioxane, a suspected carcinogen.
Because of the relatively new nature of these chemicals being discovered in water supplies, federal and state officials often haven’t formulated adequate standards to protect the public from excessive exposure to them.
In the report, seven different emerging contaminants — including PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-Dioxane — were found at levels that exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health guidance. The other chemicals were 1,2,3-trichloropropane, chlorate, cobalt and strontium.
PFOA and PFOS — used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware, stain-free carpet and firefighting foam — have been associated with multiple health problems, including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, colitis and high blood pressure. 1.4-Dioxane — a fragrant-smelling solvent used in the manufacture of paint thinner, anti-freeze, cosmetics, detergents and shampoo — was found by the EPA as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
High exposure to strontium. the most-frequently detected emerging chemical in the state, has been associated with bone growth and dental changes in infants and children.
New York state is currently considering tougher thresholds for contamination of PFOA/PFOS, as is the EPA. But the state has dragged its feet on setting the tougher standards, and the EPA standards might take until the end of the year or longer to be established and go into effect.
Many of these chemicals have infiltrated small public water systems and private wells, which incredibly are not regulated by the state.
Among the legislation under consideration by state lawmakers this year is a bill we recently supported in an editorial (A1103/S1854) that would require testing of drinking water from private wells upon the transfer of property and that would set parameters for the testing of bacteria, nitrates, nitrites, sodium, iron, manganese, pH and all volatile organic compounds for which the state has established a maximum allowable level.
The NYPIRG report estimates that more than 6.4 million New Yorkers (out of a population of 19.3 million) who get their water from private wells and small public water systems have no idea what emerging chemicals they might be exposed to, because their water is not tested for them.
Even though the report iterates that not all emerging contaminants pose a threat to public health, especially those appearing in the water supplies in very small levels, the report does nonetheless recommend that the state take tougher measures to ensure the safety of the public’s water supply.
The recommendations include statewide testing for emerging contaminants in all public water systems, regardless of size. A state law passed two years ago requiring the creation of a list of emerging contaminants and testing has not been implemented by the state Department of Health.
Other recommendations include creating more stringent standards for chemicals that might be unsafe for public health, requiring testing for private household wells, creating a public database for drinking water information and taking steps to prevent these emerging chemicals from getting into the water supply in the first place.
Just because you can’t see what’s in your water doesn’t mean something isn’t there and that it can’t cause health problems.
The state needs to take seriously the potential impact of emerging contaminants on the public’s health and take steps to limit and eliminate our exposure to them.
To read the NYPIRG report, “What’s in My Water?,”click here.