A Long Island environmentalist urged state officials to adapt stricter drinking water standards. NewsdayTV's Cecilia Dowd reports.  Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

Environmental advocates from across Long Island and throughout New York urged the State Health Department Wednesday to mirror an Environmental Protection Agency proposal and reduce the amount of harmful "forever chemicals" in drinking water to the lowest levels that tests can detect.

The EPA in March proposed regulating a class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, which are found in drinking water and linked to a broad range of health issues in humans, including low birthweight babies and kidney and bladder cancer, to four parts per trillion — the lowest level that can be reliably measured. New York, meanwhile, set its standard for two PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — to 10 parts per trillion in 2020.

On Wednesday, advocates told members of the Drinking Water Quality Council, which will provide recommendations to the State Health Department on regulating contaminants in drinking water, that the EPA's proposed standards are needed to protect New Yorkers.

Adriana Ortega, a clean water associate for Environmental Advocates New York, based in Albany, said the "public health and economic benefits of EPA's proposal outweighs the cost of testing and treatment. We recognize there are upfront costs to water utilities to test and treat for PFAS. However, these costs should not prevent this council from supporting the strongest drinking water standards against these chemicals."

If the EPA finalizes its regulatory change, which could occur by year's end, the state will have no choice but to follow the federal standards, officials said. But the advocates Wednesday urged the state not to wait on the EPA, while hedging against the agency not implementing the rule or allowing states a potential carve out.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said lowering PFAS levels from 10 to four parts per trillion would protect an additional 1 million Long Islanders.

"That would be 1 million more people who would be protected from the health impacts of PFAS," Esposito told the council, which held simultaneous meetings in Uniondale and Albany. "And that's not even a statewide number."

The council, which is composed of government officials, engineers, academics and water district superintendents, deferred making a recommendation Wednesday, instead seeking additional information from the Health Department on potential costs and treatment options.

And while council members seemed generally supportive of the EPA's proposal, some raised logistical and financial concerns about implementing the rule.

In a May 30 letter to the EPA, council member Gary Ginsberg, director of the Health Department's Center for Environmental Health, said approximately 250 of the state's 2,576 public water systems currently exceed the 10 parts per trillion standard. An additional 300 water districts would fall out of compliance if the state mirrored the EPA's levels, he said.

"The workload associated with promulgating these standards is expected to be … significant," Ginsberg wrote.

The Long Island Water Conference, a trade group of local water suppliers, has previously warned of rate increases if Health Department PFAS standards were lowered.

Board member Christopher Lake, who serves as executive director of Community for a Cause, a Queens-based nonprofit serving vulnerable New Yorkers, supports lowering PFAS levels "because it's following the current best science that is available."

A council vote, Lake said, could come in September and the Health Department is expected to follow the group's recommendation.

PFAS chemicals, which at one point were widely used in clothing, furniture, adhesives, paint, firefighting foam, food packaging and nonstick cookware, are known as "forever chemicals," because they break down slowly in the environment and in certain cases have contaminated drinking water supplies, leading to concerns about public health.

With Cecilia Dowd and Howard Schnapp


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