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Environmentalists want lower levels for PFOA and other drinking water contaminants


Advocates for clean drinking water say proposed new limits by the state Health Department for chemicals in the water supply that are linked to cancer and other serious illnesses are too high and will lead to serious health problems.

The state Health Department is recommending that the drinking water supply of any New Yorker does not contain any more than 10 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA; 10 parts per trillion of perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS; and 1 part per billion of a related substance, 1,4-dioxane.

Those sound like very small amounts, but many of the state’s leading environmental groups say they’re still too high.

Maureen Cunningham with Environmental Advocates said the chemicals can be detected and treated in humans at a level of 2 parts per trillion, so that should be the standard.

“Anything else is leaving millions of New Yorkers at risk for detectable and treatable contamination,” Cunningham said. 

The public comment period ended Sept. 23, and the environmental groups submitted testimony asking that the limits be lower. 

The groups say the state is behind in testing water supplies. Cunningham said 2.5 million New Yorkers in communities with 10,000 people or less have not yet had their water tested for PFOA and related chemicals.  

Liz Moran with the New York Public Interest Research Group said national data shows that many of the drinking water supplies that have already been tested contain the toxic substances.

“Millions of New Yorkers already have these contaminants in their drinking water,” Moran said.

Moran said the testing found that 11 million New Yorkers already have 1,4-dioxane in their drinking water, and 1.5 million have PFOA and PFOS in their water supplies.  

Several state lawmakers, including Assemblyman Phil Steck, also support lower threshold levels. The health department’s proposed rules note that there are economic costs to further lowering the limits, but Steck said that’s not taking into account the health care costs incurred when people get sick from the toxins.

“The time for 'business as usual' on these issues is over,” Steck said. “This is not 1970, where we can have the concept that because of economic reasons, we can have acceptable levels of materials like this in our drinking water.”

In the Rensselaer County village of Hoosick Falls, St. Gobain for years manufactured a substance used to make nonstick Teflon. One of the byproducts is PFOA and related chemicals. Many in the town became sick with diseases linked to exposure to the chemicals, and some died of their illnesses.  

A few months after the former regional head of the EPA warned against drinking the water, the state stepped in and provided filters for homes in the village and offered blood tests to residents. It is still seeking an alternative water source.

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Sean Mahar, said the agency will “soon” be presenting options to the community about potential new drinking water sources.

Other communities with PFOA water contamination problems include Petersburgh and Newburgh.

The environmental groups are not the only ones asking for the limits to be lowered. They also delivered postcards, signed by thousands of members of the public, demanding stricter standards.

A spokeswoman for the state health department was noncommittal about the environmental groups’ request. Erin Silk said the department will conduct a “diligent” review of all of the public comments that have been submitted.

She said it’s possible that the recommendations will be revised, based on those comments. Silk did not offer a timetable for when the final rules will be out, but said once they are, systematic testing of the state’s drinking water supplies will be completed within 90 days.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.