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Dealing with water contamination

Taking a stand against contaminants


With the revelation that potentially harmful contaminants are being found in drinking water on the North Shore, residents have grown concerned about their exposure to these chemicals.

Those concerns are warranted, said Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Northwell Health, because exposure has been connected to cancer, heightened cholesterol levels, poor thyroid function, negative effects on pregnancy and other health issues.

“I just don’t understand how this is happening, quite honestly,” said Kate Kunkle, of Sea Cliff, who is eight months pregnant. “The whole situation has shocked me beyond belief.”

Long Islanders are asking what they can do to monitor and manage their exposure to contaminants that include perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, and 1,4-dioxane. Although there is no direct treatment, there are ways to measure one’s PFAS levels. This can be useful to North Shore Water District residents, because the compounds found in the Glen Head well, known as PFOS, fall in the PFAS classification.

There is, however, currently no test for dioxane exposure.


Blood tests

Spaeth said that Long Islanders can have urine and blood tested for PFAS exposure at a doctor’s office or laboratory. These procedures do not measure the level of PFAS, but rather tests for ailments that may have resulted from that exposure.

“It’s not as direct as measuring pure levels themselves, which is not feasible at this time,” Spaeth explained, “but this is the next best step.”

It is possible to directly measure PFAS levels in the body, however, said Brad Hutton, the state Department of Health’s deputy commissioner for public health. This blood test — called liquid chromatography-gas chromatography mass spectrometry, or LC-GCMS — is done at only a half-dozen or so laboratories in the country. One of them is the Wadsworth Center in Albany.

The test, Hutton said, is mostly limited to larger studies of entire communities — like Hoosick Falls, N.Y. Hoosick Falls, roughly 30 miles north of Albany, was the first municipality in New York to have its PFAS levels monitored and treated by the state. In 2014, the village’s drinking water was found to contain a dangerous level of a PFAS chemical known as PFOA, commonly found in plastic manufacturing plants.

In 2016, the state Health Department set up granular activated carbon filters in local water wells, which filtered out PFAS chemicals in the village’s drinking water. New York American Water plans to implement this same treatment method in Glen Head.

The Health Department began giving free blood tests to Hoosick Falls residents in February 2016 at the Wadsworth Center, according to department spokeswoman Erin Silk. A second round of tests began in July 2018. Although only 685 of the 3,000 residents who were involved in the first round of testing after the carbon filters were installed were tested again, Hutton said that the second round not only revealed that PFOA levels in residents’ blood were decreasing, but also helped researchers understand how long the contamination had been a problem. By measuring the half-life of PFOA — or how long it takes for the chemical to reduce by half — they found that the village’s water had been contaminated for decades.

While the Hoosick Falls case shows that it is possible to treat PFAS contamination in a water source, studies show that Long Island’s water is far more contaminated.


Why is contamination worse on Long Island?

York Analytical Laboratories opened in Richmond Hill, Queens, last year to address the PFOS contamination issue on Long Island. York President Michael Beckerich said it is the only PFOS lab in New York City, and has partnered with environmental consultants across Long Island to test the island’s water supplies.

His lab, Beckerich said, focuses on groundwater and soil testing, which gets to the source of the problem. When PFOS enters the soil as a result of runoff from military bases, construction sites and manufacturing plants, it seeps through into the subterranean aquifer that supplies almost all of Long Island with its water.

Long Island’s sandy soil, he said, makes it a poor filter of contaminants making their way into the aquifer. To  combat water contamination here, Beckerich said, the focus should be on the groundwater.

“It’s a much bigger picture than what’s in my drinking water,” he said. “What’s in the ground? … If you don’t stop the source, it’s not going to change.”

Certain carbon filtration systems can be installed in a home to filter out some contamination from drinking water, explained Scott Yanuck, a board member of the New York State Council of Professional Geologists. The cheapest ones cost a few hundred dollars, and can be found at stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s.


What’s being done?

Because these contaminants have only recently come into the public spotlight, there are currently no regulations on their maximum levels in drinking water. However, state officials are working to change that this year.

According to the Department of Health, officials are proposing a PFOS limit of 10 parts per trillion. This regulation, as well as proposed limits on PFOA and dioxane, would be the most stringent in the country, Hutton said.

The state has put aside over $400 million for contaminant treatment on Long Island. However, funding will be available only for public water utilities, so the privately owned North Shore Water District will not be eligible for state aid.

NYAW External Affairs Manager Lee Mueller said the company would be installing granular activated vessels at the Glen Head well site. The vessels will be borrowed from sister company New Jersey American Water, she said, and NYAW is in litigation with manufacturing companies responsible for the contamination. Mueller said the company hopes that money won in those lawsuits will fund the treatment instead of raising water rates for residents.