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New York State adopts nation's first drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane

The state-of-the-art treatment system in the Hicksville Water

The state-of-the-art treatment system in the Hicksville Water District, seen on Wednesday. Credit: Raychel Brightman

New York has adopted the nation’s first drinking water standard for the emerging contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen found in more than two-thirds of public supply wells on Long Island.

The state Department of Health’s Public Health and Health Planning Council on Thursday unanimously approved setting maximum contaminant levels of 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane, an industrial solvent also present in some household products, as well as 10 parts per trillion each for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), found in firefighting foams, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used in nonstick and stain-resistant products.

They are the first chemicals to be newly regulated by New York since 2000. The action caps a five-year process that generated thousands of public comments and forced local water districts to initiate construction of complex new treatment systems estimated to cost a total of nearly a billion dollars.

What is 1,4-dioxane?

A synthetic industrial solvent that is also found in trace amounts in some household and personal care products, such as laundry detergent. The U.S. EPA classifies it as a likely human carcinogen. It has been found in more than 70% of public water supply wells on Long Island. The state will enforce a maximum contaminant level in drinking water of 1 part per billion.

PFOA and PFOS standards already have been set by several other states, though New York's is among the strictest. The state is also the first to finalize a standard for 1,4-dioxane, officials said. The federal government has no standards for any of the three.

“I think we’re a little part of history here today,” said Jeffrey Kraut, chair of the Public Health and Health Planning Council, adding that the decision would benefit Long Islanders “who are very, very concerned about our aquifer.”

On Long Island, PFOS and PFOA have been found at high levels at select wells, including near the Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach and a fire training academy in Yaphank. But 1,4-dioxane is far more prevalent, with 70% of wells found to have at least trace amounts of the solvent, and several — such as in Bethpage and Hicksville — with many times above the new state standard of 1 ppb.

Chronic, lifelong exposure to 0.35 ppb of 1,4-dioxane represents a one-in-a-million cancer risk, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The fact that the state adopted a drinking water standard nearly three times higher has disappointed some environmental and health advocates, who now are lobbying for frequent reviews that would allow revisions.

“People have been exposed to these chemicals that are known to have terrible health consequences for a long time, and the fact that, now, five years later, we are finally at a point of adopting these standards, has been slow going,” said Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has advocated for stricter drinking water standards for the contaminants. “But thankfully this is the right path.”

What are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)?

Fluorinated organic compounds that are considered “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and don’t break down. PFOS was commonly used in firefighting foams and PFOA in nonstick and stain-resistant materials. For each, the state will enforce a maximum contaminant level in drinking water of 10 parts per trillion.

Local water districts this week announced they already had spent $150 million to plan, construct and run the advanced treatment systems needed to remove 1,4-dioxane and PFOS and PFOA from the groundwater they pump and deliver for drinking, with $700 million more to be spent over the next six years. They noted that only two systems so far, in Bethpage and Central Islip, are fully operational, though 18 have been completed and are in the approval process, and 50 more are in the design or construction phase.

“Water providers stand proud of all of the progress made in such a short amount of time,” William Schuckmann, chairman of the Nassau/Suffolk Water Commissioners Association, said in a statement.

In a reaction to the state's water standard announcement, Suffolk County Water Authority chief executive officer Jeffrey Szabo, said in a prepared statement Thursday night: "SCWA has been proactively addressing 1,4-dioxane and PFOS/PFOA contamination for years. We are prepared to meet even the most stringent regulations for these chemicals in the country." 

State health officials formally recommended the new standards last July. One of the more significant revisions came in January, when they added a deferral option for local water providers worried about the cost and complexity of compliance.

If approved by the state, the providers can receive up to 36 months before violations of the new maximum contaminant levels will be issued, as long as they are meeting the state’s requirements for monitoring wells and installing the needed treatments.

The health department pledged Thursday to work with water providers, but said that if penalties must be issued, they could range from between $2,000 and $25,000 per violation, depending on how many customers the provider serves.

Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the state must ensure deferrals aren’t liberally granted.

“They should be used sparingly for water providers confronting exceptional challenges,” he said. “If it becomes the norm and everyone automatically gets a deferral, that would be unfortunate. The sooner these contaminants are removed from our drinking water supplies, the better.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Farmingdale-based advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the specialized oxidation process to treat for 1,4-dioxane might require some extra time. But she said suppliers shouldn't need much time to treat water for the new PFOA and PFOS standards.

"This is a major public health victory," she said of the state's action Thursday.

Even with state and federal grants, water providers have said rate increases will be necessary to help pay for treatment systems to remove 1,4-dioxane, PFOA and PFOS. Many also are suing the chemical manufacturers and distributors that caused the contaminants to seep into the aquifer.

Those cases are still active, but the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing some of those companies, said in a statement that the state “did not appropriately consider the impacts of the new standards on water suppliers.”

The council noted the state acted despite the EPA recently deciding to start the process to establish national standards for PFOA and PFOS. The EPA deferred a decision on 1,4-dioxane, but the council said New York’s 1 ppb standard is far lower than a previous World Health Organization recommendation.

“Regulatory authorities around the world, including Health Canada and the WHO, have recognized that 1,4-dioxane does not pose a health risk at current environmental levels,” the American Chemistry Council said.

But Goldstein said the state rightfully did not wait on the EPA and other organizations to act.

“The federal government has dropped the ball, and thankfully New York State is now stepping up,” he said.

Drinking water standards

  • 1,4-dioxane: A synthetic industrial solvent that is also found in trace amounts in some household and personal care products, such as laundry detergent. The U.S. EPA classifies it as a likely human carcinogen. It has been found in more than 70% of public water supply wells on Long Island. The state will enforce a maximum contaminant level in drinking water of 1 part per billion.
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA): Fluorinated organic compounds that are considered “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and don’t break down. PFOS was commonly used in firefighting foams and PFOA in nonstick and stain-resistant materials. For each, the state will enforce a maximum contaminant level in drinking water of 10 parts per trillion.

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