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Long Island residents worry their tap water is unsafe
New York state is proposing the country’s first firm limit on a chemical found in drinking water in heavy concentrations in some Long Island, New York communities. 1,4-dioxane has been labeled a “likely human carcinogen” by the EPA, but is not currently regulated in drinking water at the federal level. Hari Sreenivasan reports in this follow-up to our 2017 story.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it would start the process of setting drinking water standards for two widely found chemicals by the end of this year. PFOA and PFOS were used to make things like non-stick cookware and water repellent materials. They have since been linked with cancer, kidney disease, and weakened childhood immunity. But the federal government regulating new chemicals in drinking water is uncommon. It's a task often left to states, if it happens at all. In tonight's signature segment we are updating a report on drinking water safety and New York state's push to regulate a chemical found in drinking water around Long Island. It's a story about how one region is trying to clean up its water, and how costly it can be.
So this is one of the more contaminated well sites?
Engineer Rich Humann is showing me a water treatment plant in suburban Bethpage on Long Island, New York.
These cylinders are like giant versions of the water filter in your fridge. Installed in 1990, they use carbon to clean water polluted by decades-old industrial activity.
But they aren't effective at removing a new contaminant that has been detected in Long Island's water.
So what are these going to do?
So this is the advanced oxidation system that the Bethpage Water District had installed primarily to deal with 1,4-dioxane.
1,4-dioxane is a chemical found in degreasers, paint-strippers, solvents, and in some consumer products like detergents and soaps.
It's classified as a quote "likely human carcinogen" by the Environmental Protection Agency, associated with nasal cavity, liver and gall bladder tumors in animal studies.
Is there a gap between what's tested and what's in the water?
The answer is yes. We have more emerging chemicals. We have to mandate that those chemicals are tested for.
Adrienne Esposito runs the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which is based on Long Island. It has been raising alarms about the lack of regulation around 1,4-dioxane and other unregulated contaminants in drinking water.
Each year we know a little bit more, we test a little bit more, and we find a little bit more and that's a little bit scary.
Between 2013 and 2015, the EPA required every large water provider in the US to test for 1,4-dioxane. That's the first step in whether or not a contaminant will be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Results showed that Long Island was a hot spot.
More than 70 percent of water authorities here had levels of 1,4-dioxane above .35 parts per billion. That's the level that the EPA calculates poses a lifetime, one-in-a-million increased chance of developing cancer.
That may not sound like that high a risk level, but many sites here on Long Island had levels way above the ones associated with that long-term cancer risk. In fact, officials here in Hicksville had to shut down this well in 2015 because it was found to have levels of 1,4-dioxane that were the highest in the country, amounts that were nearly a 100 times higher than that one-in-a-million risk level.
But 1,4-dioxane's presence in drinking water doesn't mean it'll necessarily be regulated at the federal level. the EPA says it will not make any final determination until at least 2021.
The federal government didn't take a lead role in wanting to regulate it. So the state decided that due to the high occurrence on Long Island that we were going to take a closer look.
Stan Carey is the superintendent of the Massapequa Water District on Long Island. In 2017, he was appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to be on the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council. The council was charged with coming up with a level under which 1,4-dioxane and two other unregulated chemicals should remain.
Do you have any numbers if that standard was set lower?
In December 2018, the council recommended that the maximum allowable level of 1,4-dioxane in drinking water should be one part per billion. In other words, about three times the level associated with that one-in-a-million cancer risk.
Carey says he supports the recommendation of the council, but he actually would have allowed for more 1,4 dioxane to be in the water. He says other chemicals aren't regulated so stringently.
I don't want to, you know, jeopardize public health. I wasn't trying to do that. But other contaminants that are regulated, they are not regulated at the one-in-a-million cancer risk level. Vinyl chloride, TCE, Trichloroethylene, they're regulated in the range closer to one-in-ten-thousand. So putting it in perspective, that's what I was using as a comparison.
Carey also says that even though the limit might be one part per billion, the state ordinarily makes water suppliers take action before a chemical reaches the maximum level. Meaning in practice, water utilities will be forced to meet an even lower limit. And then there's the potential cost for water providers and ratepayers.
You have to take in the cost of the treatment and there has to be a balance of actually what's feasible to implement.
Esposito says the proposed new limit, which would be the first firm regulation on 1,4-dioxane in the country, will protect New Yorkers.
Right now there is no standard. So for the public to gain that level of protection, that's a significant advancement of public health protection.
Esposito acknowledges the challenge is how water providers will pay to meet this new state standard.
Many of the water supplies do do due diligence. I think they actually want to know what's in the drinking water. The problem is when they find out something's there, the cost of the treatment.
New York state allocated $2.5 billion towards water infrastructure in 2017. And last October, the state announced $200 million of that money would fund treatment for emerging contaminants, including 1,4-dioxane.
At Bethpage's plant six, the level of 1,4-dioxane tested eight times higher than New York's proposed threshold.
So two million gallons a day water can be treated through this set of reactors.
The water district is piloting this advanced oxidation process, or AOP, and splitting the nearly $3 million cost with the state. The system, which is still being tested, is one of the only known ways to remove 1,4-dioxane from water
One of the more significant challenges in dealing with 1,4-dioxane is it's highly soluble which makes it difficult to come out of water through some traditional treatment techniques.
Humann showed us how it works. Hydrogen peroxide is added to the untreated water. The water is then run past UV lamps. The process breaks down and removes the 1,4-dioxane from the water.
You can do everything from a technical perspective and you can understand the theory and how the treatment supposed to work. But you know there's always the practicality of the actual operation of the system.
In fact there are unknowns about how this technology even works. At the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University, researchers are studying the system using a miniature version, and setting up AOP pilot projects at four water utilities on long island. Arjun Venkatesan is the Associate Director for Drinking Water Initiatives at the center.
This is a simulated groundwater. We add known amounts of contaminants, in this case it's 1,4-dioxane, and the water is pumped through the reactor. This is set up in such a way that we can understand how quickly the dioxane degrades over time.
The Center's researchers are also looking at chemical byproducts created when UV light reacts with the contaminated water.
We want to make sure the advanced oxidation process system does not generate some toxic chemicals that we don't understand yet.
Long Island's industrial past plays a big role in its drinking water issues. Bethpage was home to a 600 acre complex where the US Navy and defense contractor Grumman, now Northrop Grumman, developed and built aerospace equipment from the mid-1930s to the 1990s. Industrial waste from the site has sunk down to the aquifer, which is the sole source of drinking water for nearly 3 million people on long island.
Engineer Rich Humann says the underground plume, as it's known, is a reality that water providers like Bethpage have to deal with.
We're never going to get away at least I'm going to say in my lifetime from the fact that we've got the old Navy/Grumman property
We've got one of the most significant groundwater contamination plumes in the entire country that this water district has been impacted like no other. And dealing with the burden that frankly no water supplier should have to deal with, but they have no choice.
Elsewhere on Long Island, some water providers are suing the makers of 1,4-dioxane. Since 2017, at least ten of them have filed lawsuits against Dow Chemical, and two other chemical manufacturers.
In a statement to Newshour Weekend, Dow said, in part, that, "these lawsuits are without merit."
The chemical industry more broadly downplays the risks from 1,4-dioxane. In a statement, the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said, in part, it's "…troubled by [New York's]… recommendation for 1,4 dioxane…" Claiming that it's "…neither scientifically justified nor economically feasible." And points out that in Canada, the limit is 50 parts per billion, 50 times New York's proposed standard.
Meanwhile, in Bethpage, officials tell us it's not just the contaminants they know about, like 1,4-dioxane, that worry them.
Considering all of the other chemicals out there that have happened in the last 30 or 40 years. When science starts to figure out how to detect those in the water. Does that mean we're going to have to build new tools like this just to be able to get that out of our drinking water?
That's… If 1,4-dioxane as an indicator, then that's, that's likely.
Watch the Full Episode
Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
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.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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