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Experts: Long Island's drinking water is polluted

Pollution only getting worse on Long Island

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Dr. Sarah Meyland, the director of the New York Institute of Technology’s Center for Water Resources Management, appeared before Friends of the Bay in Oyster Bay on Sept. 26. Meyland told the small group that Long Island’s drinking water is the most contaminated in New York state.

The water comes from an aquifer hundreds of feet underground. Many people falsely believe that the sand and soil through which rainwater passes on the way to the aquifer filters out contaminants, Meyland said. While bacteria, dirt and small solids are filtered, solvents and certain chemicals are not. Perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, and 1,4 dioxane are among the chemicals that are not.

Dioxane is a chlorinated solvent stabilizer, widely used to increase the effectiveness of chemicals in antifreeze, soap, cosmetics and more. Its hexagonal atomic structure makes it difficult to break down, so water contaminated with it is hard to treat. It is known to cause cancer in animals, and likely causes cancer in humans as well. It can affect the kidney, liver, bladder, lungs, colon, nasal cavity and skeletal muscle tissue.

The state’s maximum contaminant level of dioxane is one part per billion, determined by a state Drinking Water Quality Council last December. According to Meyland, at least 82 wells — the properties of 20 different water suppliers — exceed that limit. Some 185 of the nearly 700 drinking water wells may need treatment for dioxane, she said. Seventy-two percent of wells tested had some of the contaminant.

Treating water for dioxane can cost $4 million to $5 million, Meyland said. The state has allocated $350 million to treat wells, but Long Island falls short of the needed funding by $482.5 million.

Common water treatments such as air stripping and granulated activated carbon are ineffective against dioxane. Instead, water suppliers must use advanced oxidation processes, which expose the chemical to hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, said it is difficult to keep up with demand for new technology because so many suppliers need it at once. Gaughran, the former chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, said that all treatment systems must be approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in the development and pilot stages.

Gaughran said that a bill that would allow municipal water districts to sue polluters now awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. Lawsuits, the senator said, could recoup hundreds of millions of dollars from the polluters. Gaughran is also working to ban dioxane from household products.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that no water system can deliver any water unless it meets the state and federal standards.”

Scientists estimate that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties of perfluorinated compounds — also known as “persistent chemicals” because of how slowly they break down. They are in paints, non-stick cookware and adhesives. If they are ingested, the human body needs eight years to get rid of half of the PFAS content, depending on the chemical. The chemicals can cause kidney, liver and testicular cancers, as well as reproductive issues and high cholesterol levels. PFAS also require new, expensive technology to treat them in drinking water.

Meyland said that regulatory agencies on the state and federal levels have failed to implement strong enough protections. Additionally, she said, regional management of groundwater is needed.

“The story of Long Island’s drinking water — the bottom line is it’s getting worse,” Meyland said. “Contaminants continue to be identified. Contamination itself is continuing.”

Meyland’s presentation “increased my alarm,” said Caroline DuBois, a Friends of the Bay volunteer and a former Oyster Bay Cove resident of 60 years. “The more you know, the more you realize it’s a huge problem.”