Chemicals in state’s drinking water pose serious public health threat

Chemicals used in coatings for products such as nonstick pans and stain repellent have become a lurking threat to drinking water supplies nationwide, prompting a call to better test for their presence in New York.

A group of county leaders, health officials and environmental directors, in a letter last week, asked the state health department and federal Environmental Protection Agency to require water testing for perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.

The chemicals have been found in groundwater near industrial sites, military bases and airports. When ingested, they have been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, pre-eclampsia, thyroid disease, developmental defects in fetuses, liver tissue damage and immune system impairments.

Stephen J. Acquario, executive director and general counsel for the New York State Association of Counties, said the call to action is meant to encourage continually improved water quality and safety. Enforceable maximum content levels are an essential next step, he said.

“It’s a contaminant that is existing in the environment, so we need a better way to identify the chemical and get rid of it,” Acquario said. “This is the largest threat to our drinking water quality that faces us, now and for the foreseeable future.”

PFOS and PFOA were voluntarily phased out of American production between 2000 and 2006. They were found mostly in nonstick pans, furniture, cosmetics, household cleaners, clothing and packaged food containers. Teflon, Stainmaster, Scotchgard and SilverStone are some of the more well-known brands with these chemicals. They were also in firefighting foam.

Before phasing out the chemicals in production, large quantities were released during the manufacturing processes and contaminated drinking water supplies near current or former manufacturing locations, according to the NSF International Public Health and Safety Organization. The state Health Department, in response, said it is focused on setting guidelines for protective maximum content levels of PFOA and PFOS.

Brad J. Hutton, the deputy commissioner of the New York State Public Health Office, said the state advises that more than 2 parts per trillion is potentially dangerous and should be monitored by state or local governments.

The state also established a Drinking Water Task Force, which the letter is addressed to, essential to helping with cleaning up contamination and installing carbon-activated filters in water systems where PFOA or PFOS is found as a first step, Acquario said.

Through the task force, the state randomly selected several public water suppliers to begin testing for the PFOA and PFOS in their drinking water. This excludes any private residential wells or water suppliers from testing. Because these tests are in random locations, it is unclear whether these chemicals are existing in the north country’s water supply. The state Health Department did not have data available Friday identifying where tests have been conducted.

Public and private water suppliers must follow New York State Sanitary Code for contaminants and test water. A majority of suppliers sample monthly, but how often the water is tested is based on the population and the contaminant, Acquario said.

Public suppliers are required to test for nearly 100 contaminants, but more than 80,000 potential chemicals exist. “The federal government is charged with having a monitoring system to potentially add other chemicals to the ones we are required to test, but the EPA has not been moving fast enough,” Hutton said.

The current cost of filters for residential wells, Acquario said, can add up to millions of dollars, all funded by taxpayers. The hope with these letters, he added, is to put the blame on the correct people.

“We want to hold those manufacturers accountable as the polluter for the public mediation costs and threats to the public water supply,” he said.

Sampling for a water plant can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000, while a private well sample, which is not required but can be done voluntarily, is between $800 and $1,000.

Acquario said if there is a serious contamination issue requiring a new municipal treatment system to be put in place, the cost is between $25 million and $35 million, with an additional $500,000 in labor costs.

In additional state efforts to get rid of the chemicals, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, under Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood, issued the first-ever state lawsuit against five major companies in June to “recoup at least $38 million in costs incurred by the State in cleaning up environmental contamination caused by toxic chemicals in their products,” according to Ms. Underwood’s office.

The companies targeted were 3M, Tyco Fire Products LP, ChemGuard Inc., Buckeye Fire Equipment Co., National Foam Inc. and Kidde-Fenewal Inc.

The suit alleges the use of firefighting foams made by the companies at military and civilian airports in Newburgh, New Windsor, Southampton, Plattsburgh and Rome resulted in contamination of soil, fish and water by PFOA and PFOS found in the product. The companies allegedly designed, manufactured, marketed and sold foams used for fire fighting and fire fighting training at Stewart Air National Guard Base, Stewart International Airport, Francis S. Gabreski Airport, former Plattsburgh Air Force Base and former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome.

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