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While most of the country’s tap water is tested for hundreds of pollutants, including volatile chemicals, pesticides, metals and bacteria, it is not always safe to drink. In the first of a two-part series, NewsHour Weekend’s Hari Sreenivasan reports from Long Island, New York, on worries about the presence of 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the EPA says it’s “likely to be carcinogenic,” but is almost completely unregulated.
Imagine the water filter on your kitchen counter, what we're standing next to are just a few thousand times bigger.
JASON HIME, SUFFOLK COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH:
This is raw water going out to each of these two vessels that are filled with virgin, granular activated carbon.
We're at a water treatment well in Greenlawn, New York and my guide is Jason Hime, a public health engineer with the Suffolk County Department of Health.
This is the last step before it is sent out to thousands of homes. But even before it gets here, the water, which is pumped from more than 300 feet underground, is treated with chemicals like chlorine and is adjusted for the correct pH level.
This equipment here monitors the pH level as it goes out to the consumer,
This is monitoring the chlorine going in the system and this is just trying to hit 7 exactly. Less than 7 is acidic. Over 7 is where—
Slightly basic. Just over 7 is the goal.
Right, basic high school science class
All the county well water is regularly tested here at the public health lab. Suffolk County goes far beyond the nearly 100 contaminants regulated by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.
But despite the treatment and testing, there is at least one important, unregulated chemical sliding through. And the Environmental Protection Agency says it's "likely to be carcinogenic to humans."
We're analyzing for close to 300 different parameters including volatile organic chemicals, semi-volatile organic chemicals, pesticides, radionuclides, inorganics, metals, bacteria, pharmaceutical and personal care products and several emerging contaminants of concern such as 1,4 dioxane.
1,4 dioxane is a chemical found in degreasers, paint strippers, and household products. And it's one of about 85,000 chemicals in use in the United States that are not regulated in drinking water.
In 2009, the EPA added 1,4-dioxane to a list of contaminants to possibly regulate and required every large water provider in the country test for it. It's the first step in regulating a new contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act and tests between 2013 and 2015 showed 1,4-dioxane is in drinking water around the country.
In fact, water systems in 27 states, serving more than 7 million people, had levels of 1,4-dioxane above 0.35 parts per billion, that's the level that the EPA calculates poses a lifetime, one in a million increased chance of developing cancer.
ADRIENNE ESPOSITO, CITIZENS CAMPAIGN FOR THE ENVIRONMENT:
People say it's one in a million chance. Well maybe that sounds great, unless you're the one. Or your family member is the one.
Adrienne Esposito runs Citizens Campaign for the Environment, it's based on Long Island, which was found to be a hot spot for 1,4-dioxane.
73 percent of water authorities here had levels of 1,4-dioxane above that long-term cancer risk, compared with just 7 percent nationwide.
Long Island's industrial legacy, with its 34 Superfund sites, is partly to blame; it can take decades for pollution to make its way down to the underground aquifer that supplies Long Island's water.
The majority of Suffolk County is also unsewered, and household products like detergents where smaller amounts of 1,4-dioxane are present as an unlabeled byproduct, end up in septic tanks and can leach into the groundwater.
There unfortunately and alarmingly is a gigantic gap between what we know and what we don't know. We have a lot of water suppliers. They're very judicious. They follow the law. They test more frequently than they're required to. But there's literally thousands of chemicals that are not being tested for and may or may not be in our drinking water.
The Personal Care Products Council, a trade group that represents cosmetic and personal care companies, declined an interview request but said in a statement, in part, 1,4-dioxane "is a byproduct that can form in trace amounts during the manufacturing process" but that "levels present in finished products are minimized and do not present a hazard under conditions of use."
The American Chemistry Council, an industry group representing chemical companies, declined an interview request, but said in a statement to NewsHour Weekend, in part, "where detected, [1,4-dioxane] has been found in low levels that do not present significant risk or cause for alarm."
Adrienne Esposito takes issue with that, in part, because 1,4 dioxane is present in so many places.
We're getting an exposure level through water, but then also an additional exposure to other products that we're using every day. It's the multiple exposure through many sources that we believe puts us at risk.
The EPA declined PBS NewsHour Weekend's interview request, but said in a statement, in part, "EPA will consider occurrence data along with health effects information as part of the agency's regulatory determinations process" for 1,4-dioxane. Adding, "EPA anticipates completing the next regulatory determinations in 2021."
Remember, the EPA identified 1,4-dioxane as a chemical it may regulate in 2009, and won't rule on it until at least 2021. History suggests regulation is unlikely. In the 21 years since the Safe Drinking Water Act was updated, the EPA's process has not led to the regulation of a single new contaminant.
JUDITH ENCK, FORMER EPA REGIONAL ADMINISTRATOR:
We have 85,000 chemicals used in commerce today. How many are we going to have in the next five or ten years?
Judith Enck was an EPA regional administrator from 2009 to 2017 under President Obama.
The dirty little secret in the drinking water area is that for most of the chemicals used in commerce our water supply is never tested it's never monitored. It's a short list of what is looked at and it's impossible to test for all of them, but I think we can be sensible about it.
Enck is not inspired by the direction the EPA is headed. In July, President Trump nominated toxicologist Michael Dourson to lead the EPA's chemical safety program, while working as a consultant for a manufacturer that uses 1,4-dioxane, Dourson co-authored a 2014 paper that found the safe level for the chemical was 1,000 times higher than the EPA's one in a million cancer risk. A point that was raised during his confirmation hearing.
In late October, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works narrowly approved Dourson's nomination on a partly line vote. But earlier this week, Dourson withdrew himself from consideration after it appeared he might not win full Senate confirmation.
Given the situation in Washington, it's imperative that the states act.
Which is exactly what's been happening: 6 states have already regulated 1,4-dioxane, and New York may be the next.
In October, the New York Drinking Water Quality Council met for the first time. It's made up of state environmental and health officials, scientists, and water providers. The Council is required to recommend a maximum allowable level of 1,4-dioxane and two other contaminants by next year.
Brad Hutton is the Deputy Commissioner of Public Health for the New York Department of Health.
BRAD HUTTON, NEW YORK DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH:
While we've requested strongly for the federal government to establish a unified national standard, which would be preferable, in the absence of one, New York has stepped up to establish its own level.
But deciding how much of a contaminant like 1,4-dioxane is safe, and how to potentially remove it isn't easy.
So everyone has a different perception of risk. If we could wave a wand and spend a dime, we would we would do it to prevent all of those cancers but it's typically much more complicated.
And once New York figures out the maximum contaminant level, potentially treating it won't be cheap.
DENNIS KELLEHER, LONG ISLAND WATER CONFERENCE:
I could see our water rates going up 50 percent. If they set it as low as some other states have actually looked at.
Dennis Kelleher is an engineer who represents the Long Island Water Conference, an association of public water providers and drinking water professionals. He says water authorities are caught in the middle when it comes to unregulated contaminants like 1,4-dioxane.
The public is hearing about it and saying 'I don't want it in my drinking water' and we're saying 'well we don't know at what level is acceptable' and to make things even worse, there isn't an acceptable, approvable treatment system that we can install if we needed to put something in.
JOE ROCCARO, SUFFOLK COUNTY WATER AUTHORITY:
So as the water is flowing through, the radicals are destroying the contaminant, immediately.
Joe Roccaro is a water quality engineer for the Suffolk County Water Authority. This is one of the first, full-scale pilot projects in the country to remove 1,4-dioxane from water.
1,4-dioxane passes through traditional treatment and filtering technologies, so the utility has been testing a method called advanced oxidation process. A chemical is added to the water and it is then run past 72 u-v lamps, which strips out the 1,4-dioxane… while the state and county have yet to officially give the go-ahead to put it online, tests show it reduces 1,4-dioxane below detectable levels.
But the system isn't cheap: treating just the Suffolk County wells that are above the one in a million cancer risk level, it would cost about $155 million.
Activists working to limit this chemical see the costs differently, and a need for federal and state regulators to take a more active role.
We need a public health standard, not one driven by the economy, or the economics of the filtration. We need one driven by what protects us from getting cancer. The goal is to keep people healthy and that's going to cost money. I'm sorry but it's not free
While this UV filtering system may work for 1,4-dioxane, for water authorities like Suffolk County, it's not easy keeping up with new threats to drinking water.
As we move forward there's no black box, you know, there's no magic treatment that's going to remove everything. And I mean that's the bottom line.
Watch the Full Episode
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
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