More than 1 million Long islanders are ingesting at least trace levels of highly toxic chemicals every time they drink water from the faucet, according to new data from local water providers analyzed by a Farmingdale-based environmental group.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment is urging the State Health Department to consider more stringent standards in regulating PFAS chemicals that have been widely used in clothing, furniture, adhesives, paint, firefighting foam, food packaging and nonstick cookware.
PFAS, known as "forever chemicals," break down slowly in the environment and in certain cases have contaminated drinking water supplies, leading to concerns about public health.
While 27 water districts across Long Island, representing more than 450,000 residents, have non-detectable levels of PFAS, other areas have at least some detectable level, CCE data shows.
Exposure to PFAS can lead to higher rates of kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid problems, diabetes, childhood obesity and reduced fetal growth in pregnant women, experts said.
"Clean water is a critical need, not a luxury item," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign during a news conference in Farmingdale Tuesday. "And when people turn on the tap, they believe that their water is safe and clean. But unfortunately, on Long Island, that is not necessarily true. PFAS chemicals are an insidious, toxic group of chemicals that are being found across the nation. Long Island has become a microcosm of that problem. And we're finding alarming amounts of PFAS chemicals in our everyday drinking water supplies."
In early-October, the Health Department proposed drinking water regulations for 23 PFAS contaminants, including those found in common items such as cookware, cosmetics and carpets.
New York already has a 10-parts-per-trillion drinking water maximum contaminant level for the two most common PFAS compounds — PFOS and PFOA. The proposed regulations would set the same standards for four additional compounds: PFHxS, PFNA, PFDA and PFHpA.
The proposed regulations would also set a maximum contaminant level for any combination of those six PFAS compounds at 30-parts-per-trillion and require testing, reporting and public notification — a less stringent requirement than for the other compounds — for 19 additional PFAS compounds.
In a letter to the Health Department Monday — before the end of the 60-day public comment period — CCE encouraged officials to lower the maximum contaminant level for the six PFAS compounds to 2-parts-per-trillion while reducing the combined levels to 20-parts-per trillion.
"Addressing PFAS chemicals … is the greatest drinking water challenge and crisis of our generation," Esposito said. "And we need New York State to get it right."
In a statement, the Health Department said it would consider the group's comments.
The amount of PFOS and PFOA permitted in drinking water is so low that it is the equivalent of 10 grains of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
“New York has been a national leader when it comes to regulating emerging contaminants and will continue to be with the latest regulations currently moving through the formal approval process," the department said.
The state has granted deferrals for water districts to meet drinking water standards to come into compliance
The regulations came weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to designate PFOS and PFOA as hazardous. The EPA has reduced its guidelines for those chemicals — which have been voluntarily phased out by U.S. manufacturers but still remain in the environment because they do not degrade over time — to levels so low that they can't be detected by current methods.
On Long Island, water districts can largely eliminate PFAS contamination through carbon filtration systems, Esposito said. Household water filters, experts say, are only partially effective at removing PFAS chemicals.
CCE did not calculate the cost of water districts purchasing the filters although the state is set to receive $150 million in federal funding over the next five years to test and treat emerging contaminants, including PFAS.
A total of 16 districts, with a combined population of nearly 658,000, had PFAS levels exceeding 2-parts-per-trillion while 10 others, representing 570,000 Long Islanders, had levels exceeding 10-parts-per-trillion, the state health standard for some common PFAS compounds, CCE said.
Meanwhile, 16 water districts had cumulative PFAS levels topping 20-parts-per-trillion, according to the CCE data. They include Suffolk County Water Authority Distribution Area 1, stretching from Babylon to West Sayville, which registered a combined 146-parts-per-trillion — the highest on Long Island and nearly 5 times higher than would be allowed under proposed state regulations, CCE said.
SCWA spokesman Timothy Motz said CCE used samples taken at different times and locations, combining them "in a way that is not representative of the quality of the drinking water at any one time or at any one location. On average, the level of the contaminants is non-detect. The SCWA is in the process of installing treatment systems to ensure that there is no detectable level of these PFAS contaminants in any of its public water supply, and it has commenced litigation to ensure that the polluters pay for the costs of the treatment systems and not SCWA customers.”
Esposito responded: "CCE did not combine any data. All the data is from SCWA and individual water suppliers’ reports. They are the ones who collected the data and presented it in their reports … We simply gathered their own data from their annual drinking water reports and put that data into one map."
Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine all require a cumulative standard of 20-parts-per-trillion, said Jordan Christensen, CCE's Hudson Valley program coordinator.
"There's no reason New York State should be higher," Christensen said. "We need to go down to 20-points-per-trillion to protect human health, which would protect over 100,000 more people on Long Island."
WHAT TO KNOW
More than 1 million Long Islanders are drinking water with at least a trace level of toxic chemical compounds, known as PFAS, according to data from Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
The Farmingdale group is urging the State Health Department to consider tightening its proposed standards regulating PFAS, which are used in clothing, furniture, food packaging and nonstick cookware
On Long Island, water districts can largely eliminate PFAS contamination through expensive carbon filtration systems attached to wells