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State ties Bethpage water well's use before 1976 to potential health risk 

A state Department of Health report found high levels of the solvent trichloroethene, known as TCE, at Well 6-1 in Bethpage before it was shut down in 1976. Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang

A state Department of Health report for the first time has linked groundwater pollution before 1976 in a well near the former Northrop Grumman and U.S. Navy site in Bethpage to specific potential health effects.

High levels of the solvent trichloroethene, known as TCE and found at Well 6-1 before it was shut down in 1976, "could have harmed people's health," according to the report. Water pumped from the other five Bethpage wells before 1976 was not harmful to people's health, and water from all wells since 1976 also has not been harmful, the report said.

“The good news here is that there’s no risk or health effects to current exposure," said Brad Hutton, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Health. The Bethpage Water District "has been successfully treating the water for more than 40 years."

For pre-1976 drinking water, “The risk is still low, certainly for cancer health effects,” Hutton said.

Bethpage residents who consumed the water from Well 6-1, near Lowell Street and Park Lane, over a long period of time face a higher risk of immune system deficiencies, or developmental effects in infants, including fetal heart defects, the report said.

“The estimated ingestion and inhalation exposures to TCE in Well 6-1, occurring before 1976, approached exposures that could have resulted in immune or developmental toxicity,” according to the report.

The report also noted that it was not possible to know, or predict, whether any individual has experienced or will experience "health effects resulting from this particular past exposure."

TCE, a human-made clear, colorless liquid that has a somewhat sweet odor, was used for decades by Northrop Grumman and the Navy to degrease and clean metal parts. It is volatile, meaning it readily evaporates at room temperature.

The Navy and Northrop Grumman set up manufacturing, research and testing facilities on a more than 600-acre plot in Bethpage beginning in the late 1930s that employed thousands of workers. It was home to the Apollo moon lander, known as the Lunar Excursion Module, and manufactured military planes like the Hellcat, Tigercat and Albatross.

$585 million treatment plan

The site now is on the state's hazardous waste Superfund list. State officials in May  presented a $585 million proposal to contain and treat the groundwater plume, considered to be among the largest and most complex pollution sites on Long Island, which draws drinking water from its aquifers. That proposal made reference to the Department of Health report.

A Navy spokesman declined to comment on the report. A spokesman for Northrop Grumman said the company plans to submit comments to the state before the public comment period ends July 22.

The Department of Health launched its study after a Patchogue resident, in a 2012 letter to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, inquired about health risks from the former Navy and Northrop Grumman site. The department declined to name the resident, but Carmine Vasile, a former scientist at Northrop Grumman, provided Newsday correspondence between himself and the federal agency, which referred the inquiry to the state Department of Health. 

The report, done in consultation with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and released May 23, evaluated the effects of volatile organic chemicals used in the industrial processes at the site as far back as 1976. The report used the results of three groundwater tests taken in late 1976 to calculate maximum exposure levels since the well went online in 1952.

The tests showed levels of TCE at 28, 26, and 60 parts per billion. While there was no standard at the time, the current federal and state maximum contamination level is 5 parts per billion.

Richard Humann, president and CEO of H2M architects + engineers and a consultant to the Bethpage Water District, said the report's extrapolations were "irresponsible" because test results can vary widely. It also doesn't consider that TCE levels would be diluted before reaching taps because there were six wells in service at the time, he said.

"I think it’s so uncertain that I don’t even know how you could draw conclusions," he said. "It's virtually impossible to go back and create a simulation and scenario that’s 44 years old."

Humann criticized the state for not examining the possible exposure to TCE and other chemicals for 25,000 Northrop Grumman workers who drank water from private wells owned and operated by the company.

"We think they need to go back and redo the report," he said. "If the intention was to let people know what possible exposure they may have been exposed to, it's not providing people information."

Homes nearer Well 6-1 were not necessarily exposed to more TCE because water pumped through the six wells in Bethpage at the time was mixed, Humann said.

Hutton said the report did not aim to assess exposures to Northrop Grumman workers and noted the study discloses test results were from untreated water samples. He said he would encourage the Bethpage Water District to submit public comments before the July 22 deadline, and that the state would work with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to make any necessary revisions.

The report said there was “low” increased cancer risk from TCE for people who drank water when Well 6-1, which was south of the former Northrop Grumman and Navy facilities, was operating. The estimated exposure posed an increased lifetime cancer risk of between 3 in 100,000 and 8 in 100,000. That means that if 100,000 people are exposed to the same concentration of pollutant continuously over an assumed 70-year lifetime, between 3 and 8 people likely would contract cancer from this exposure. This risk would be in addition to any cancer risk borne by a person not exposed to pollutants. 

TCE found in other water contaminated by the site, outside of Well 6-1, was estimated to pose a "very low to low increased risk for cancer" and a "minimal" risk for noncancer health effects, the report said.

The Bethpage Water District criticized the report. "This report makes gross assumptions from 45 years ago and unfortunately provides no beneficial information whatsoever," Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis said in a statement. "The Bethpage Water District has always been proactive in deploying the necessary technology to protect the health and safety of our residents.

"The tap water Bethpage residents receive in their homes has always met and exceeded state and federal drinking water standards and undergoes an exhaustive treatment process."

Vasile called the report "nonresponsive" because it only looked at three volatile organic compounds and ignored other contaminants, including radioactive carcinogens such as radium. Department of Health officials said Vasile was notified of a separate health report from 2011 that addressed radioactive carcinogens.

The most recent report didn't study the effects of 1,4-dioxane, an emerging contaminant designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen that has been found in Bethpage water at up to 15 times a level recommended by a state drinking water panel. There's no drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane, though the state is expected to announce one within the next several weeks.

Well 6-1 reopened in 1990 with treatment systems for volatile organic compounds, including TCE. The Bethpage Water District is constructing a $19.5 million treatment facility at the site to more efficiently treat volatile organic compounds and to treat 1,4-dioxane.

'Emerging contaminant'

Hutton said the report didn't look at the toxicity of 1,4-dioxane contamination because "it's an emerging contaminant that came to light as we were completing the review." The report followed state and federal health methodologies for risk assessments, which he said was the first done at Bethpage, he said.

Ann Aschengrau, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, agreed.

"They’re using standard methods for assessing risk," she said. "You have to take the results seriously because the chemical is known to be carcinogenic. … You have to err on the side of protecting public health."

Aschengrau said if someone had long-term exposure, "They should be prudent, and tell their physician, and get checked out."

Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, said immune health effects from TCE could include autoimmune disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma and Crohn's disease. Exposure to TCE also has been linked to a hypersensitive immune system, he said, which includes excess allergies and asthma.

Developmental effects from TCE can include low birth weight in infants, failure to grow for children, and birth defects, he said.

Carpenter said the report indicates "TCE is not the most potent carcinogen. It's well documented to be a carcinogen. If you’re exposed to it, you’ll be at risk of a small elevated risk of cancer."

In 2013, a state study of cancer rates in a section near the former site did not reveal more cases than normally would be expected. The study examined a 19-block area and a one-block area east of the former Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant and south of Bethpage Community Park where groundwater and soil contamination has been found. In the larger area, the most frequent types of cancer found — such as lung, breast and prostate — are among the most frequently found in adults.

In a one-block area, directly east of the former Navy site, researchers said people diagnosed with cancer were younger than what is typical, but given the small population, "These results do not provide a clear indication of an unusual pattern of cancers," the report said.

The Bethpage Water District and health officials have for decades sought to reassure the community that the water has been safe to drink. Still, community members have expressed concerns about the health effects.

At a meeting June 10 to solicit public comments on the state cleanup plan, several residents blamed the plume for health problems.

Susan Spinato, 60, of Bethpage, said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in October. Family members and neighbors also had been diagnosed with cancer, she said. 

Spinato said she moved to Bethpage when she was 2 years old in 1962 or 1963. The new health report, she said, "Makes you think. There are chemicals in the water. It's in the land, too."

Sarah Meyland, director of the Center for Water Resources Management at New York Institute of Technology, said the Department of Health "is being conservative" with its assessment, in part because it only had a limited amount of data on water quality from back then.

"This is the first time they put in black-and-white that people exposed to this well could’ve been negatively effected, but we don’t know," Meyland said. "That’s the first time they’ve put it in writing."

WHAT IS TRICHLOROETHENE?

Known as TCE, trichloroethene is a human-made clear, colorless liquid that has a somewhat sweet odor. It is volatile, meaning it readily evaporates at room temperature. It is used as a solvent to remove grease from metal during the manufacture of a variety of products, including building/furniture materials, fixtures, fabricated metal, and electric/electronic equipment. Trichloroethene also is used as a paint stripper, adhesive solvent, as an ingredient in paints and varnishes, and in the manufacture of other chemicals. Another name for trichloroethene is trichloroethylene.

Source: New York State Department of Health

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