Move to tighten drinking water standards

State officials took steps Tuesday to limit the concentration of chemicals that contaminated the drinking water supply in Hoosick Falls several years ago.

If adopted, the recommendation would require improvements to around a quarter of public water systems across the state, with initial costs of $855 million.

The standards, recommended by the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council, led by Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, would be the toughest in the nation if adopted. But they fall short of limits recommended by many scientists.

At issue are two chemicals – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). They’ve been used since the 1960s in products like Teflon, Scotchgard, toothpaste and foam used to fight fires. Even at low levels, these chemicals are linked with serious health effects, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and developmental effects on fetuses and breast-fed infants.

These chemicals gained notoriety across the state after high levels of PFOA were detected in drinking water in Hoosick Falls in 2014. The chemicals had leaked from the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant and contaminated the water supply. The Department of Health and village officials were criticized for waiting 16 months before telling residents to stop drinking the water.

There is no legally enforceable federal limit on the concentration of these chemicals that can appear in drinking water. This leaves states to set their own limits: only a handful have. Only Vermont has a legally enforceable limit, while at least 7 other states have adopted guidelines.

The Drinking Water Quality Council recommended a limit of 10 parts per trillion. While more stringent than limits and guidelines set in other states, some advocacy groups and scientists maintain the limit should be lower.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends a maximum contaminant level of 2 parts per trillion. Environmental Advocates of New York, an Albany-based environmental advocacy group, recommends a level of 4 parts per trillion.

The European Food Safety Authority released a study Tuesday that found drinking water limits should be about 1 part per trillion for PFOA and 2 parts per trillion for PFOS.

The state Department of Health’s own analysis found that only a limit as low as 4 parts per trillion would fully protect infants, considered the most vulnerable population, from adverse health effects.

Vote for our top story of the year

“At the end of the day, there are communities that have been exposed to these chemicals and they don’t feel that any level is safe,” said Liz Moran, environmental policy director at the New York Public Interest Research Group. “There is more science that is coming out that is indicating that there is likely no level of exposure to these chemicals that is assuredly safe for public health.”

The Department of Health will now start a rule-making process that could solidify these recommendations into regulations. There will be a 60-day public comment period. Advocates have urged the Department of Health to use its emergency rule-making powers to hasten the process.

“Hoosick Falls is not a story that should ever be replicated again,” said Moran. “We strongly encourage quick action. Do an emergency rule-making, put these into place as quickly as possible and make sure that state-wide testing begins as soon as possible.”

When a limit is set, water systems throughout the state will be required to test for these chemicals and keep levels below the regulated limit.

Recent state tests found that 198 public water systems were contaminated with PFOA or PFOS at levels over 10 parts per trillion. Another 249 fell between 2 parts per trillion and 10 parts per trillion. The state has not tested all public water systems.

The council considered the cost of removing these chemicals from drinking water. According to the Department of Health, a limit of 10 parts per trillion would require upgrades and continuing treatment of 23 percent of public water systems. This would initially cost $855 million and $45 million per year for upkeep.

At a lower limit of 4 parts per trillion, an estimated 40 percent of community water systems would need treatment. This could cost $1.5 billion in initial investments and $78 million annually.

Our Weekly Newsletter

During the council meeting, advocacy groups urged the Department of Health to limit a wider range of chemicals. Manufacturers, under pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, no longer produce PFOS and PFOA. But as these chemicals have been phased out, industries have replaced them with similar chemicals that fall under a much broader umbrella group of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) chemicals.

“Without regulating the entire group, manufacturers can continue using similar chemicals that have been associated with similar health effects,” Kim Ong, a senior attorney and safe drinking water advocate with NRDC, said in an emailed statement to Investigative Post.

During its meeting, the council also made a recommendation for drinking water limits for 1,4 dioxane, a likely human carcinogen that has contaminated drinking water sources in Long Island.

According to the New York Public Interest Research Group, over 4 million New Yorkers have been exposed to unhealthy levels of all three of these chemicals.