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Don't wait to protect our water

State Health Dept. should adopt new, tougher standards for contaminants.

Algae visible on the surface of the water

Algae visible on the surface of the water at the south end of Agawam Lake in Southampton, May 11, 2017. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

An analysis of government data by the New York Public Interest Research Group shows that the drinking water of more than 2.8 million New Yorkers have levels of 1,4-dioxane that are above the most stringent levels recommended for safety.

This is also the case for two chemicals that affect more than 1.4 million New Yorkers. Their names are complicated — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) — but their threat to public health is clear. Even at very low levels of exposure, they can lead to developmental effects in fetuses, as well as thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and kidney and testicular cancers. Studies find that exposure to 1,4-dioxane can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver illnesses.

Thankfully, the state has taken a first step to address some dangerous chemicals that have plagued New York communities. In December, the state Drinking Water Quality Council recommended maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane.

MCLs are legally enforceable drinking-water standards, and they are essential to prevent exposure to dangerous chemicals in our water. Now that recommendations have been made, the Department of Health can’t afford to drag its feet. It must adopt MCLs that will protect our most sensitive populations into regulations and begin testing immediately.

The longer New York doesn’t have standards for MCLs on the books, the greater the chances people get exposed to unsafe levels of these chemicals.

If these chemicals had been regulated and had MCLs years ago, communities might not have had to face the pollution problems they face today. Unfortunately, too often, steps to protect water aren’t taken until after a contamination crisis has unfolded. But that has to change.

When it comes to drinking water, state lawmakers who opened the 2019 legislative session in January have a lot to do. Here are just three:

1. Enact a budget that increases funding for the Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017 by at least $2.5 billion. This program funds various needs, from water infrastructure grants to land preservation around source water. Over the next 20 years, New York will need to invest $80 billion to make all the needed repairs, upgrades and replacements to water infrastructure.

2. Hold hearings on threats to drinking-water supplies. In 2016, the State Legislature held hearings that led to the creation of the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, the Drinking Water Quality Council and requirements for statewide testing of emerging contaminants. Hearings will be critical to address ongoing concerns and to track the progress of existing programs.

3. Regulate chemicals that are unregulated. More than 80,000 chemicals on the market are unregulated, which means that even though they may not be safe for public health, they can be in our products or water anyway.

The public has the basic right and expectation that the water from their taps will be safe to drink. As the federal government rolls back environmental rules, protecting water and health must be at the top of Albany’s agenda.

 Blair Horner is executive director of NYPIRG, a nonprofit watchdog group, where Liz Moran is the environmental policy director.

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