Earth Matters: Chemicals in our drinking water

Earth Matters: Chemicals in our drinking water
Patti Wood

On Long Island we are fortunate to have abundant underground aquifers, left there from melting ice ages, from which we get our drinking water.

Rainwater and melting snow replenish this resource, moving slowly through the soil profile which helps to filter out impurities.

Settlers on this island enjoyed these pristine waters for hundreds of years, until the introduction of industrial processes and synthetic chemicals in the last century which led to contamination of this aquifer system we depend on.

Some of these chemicals we know: the pesticide atrazine, used by potato farmers on the east end of Long Island, can still be found in the shallow aquifers that lie under those fields.

And of course, the legacy of the Grumman Aerospace industrial complex in Bethpage lives on in the underground plume of toxic chemicals and radioactive materials slowly migrating south.

Among the emerging threats to our water is 1,4-dioxane.

You may have heard of this contaminant, but perhaps you didn’t know that Long Island’s drinking water wells have some of the highest detected levels anywhere.

In fact, a water supply well in Hicksville measured the highest in the nation. And the majority of our Superfund sites are found to contain concerning levels of 1,4-dioxane, which is commonly found together with the industrial chemical, TCA.

The attention this is getting in the local media is partly due to the fact that exposure to 1,4-dioxane, either in high concentrations or as chronic exposure to low levels has the potential to cause cancer in humans.

In addition, there is currently no federal or New York State drinking water maximum contaminant level (MCL) for 1,4-dioxane, and remediation costs can be as high as a million dollars or more per well, utilizing a process called advanced oxidation.

The Environmental Protection Agency distinguishes an elevated cancer risk in drinking water with 1,4-dioxane concentrations greater than or equal to 0.35 parts per billion (ppb).

Last year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation requested that the EPA establish an official federal drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane, putting them on notice that if this is not done in a timely manner, the DEC would establish its own maximum contaminant level for New York.

So what exactly is 1, 4-dioxane, and where does it come from?

It’s a synthetic chemical used as a solvent and a chlorinated solvent stabilizer for industrial chemicals and a by-product in many commonly used products, such as paint strippers, dyes, adhesives, greases and antifreeze. 1,4-dioxane is also created during a manufacturing process called ethoxylation, which makes detergents and other petroleum-based chemicals in consumer products less harsh.

Examples include liquid laundry detergents, dishwashing liquids, shampoos, deodorants and other personal care products, particularly those that produce suds.

But you won’t find 1,4-dioxane listed on any product label.

That’s because the chemical is technically a by-product and not an ingredient, so manufacturers of personal care products are not required to list it on their labels.

The FDA has been measuring 1,4 dioxane levels in consumer products for decades.

By 2000, it was recommending that manufacturers voluntarily reduce 1,4 dioxane in their products.

There was a particular focus on children’s shampoos and bubble baths, due to the fact that children are always more vulnerable to toxins. We need the FDA to make removal of 1, 4-dioxane mandatory for personal care products.

So let’s look at the worst offenders.

Liquid laundry detergent leads the list, with some of the highest levels being found in the popular Tide brand products.

A lot of people use liquid laundry detergent because it works well in cold water, but we have to start thinking about how our habits and brand loyalty might be having a negative impact on something as important as our water supply.

So what to do?

Those of us with septic systems or cesspools that receive wastewater from our homes should be cognizant of our personal contribution to this drinking water problem.

These wastewater systems leach into the ground and eventually find their way into our aquifers.  And whether we have a private well (there are about 47,000 private wells on Long Island) or are connected to a public water supply, the products we use can make a huge difference.

Switch to powdered laundry detergent (Bio-Kleen makes a good product), and look for personal care products that don’t contain PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, polyoxynolethylene and chemicals ending in –eth, –oleth and –oxynol.

Also look for products with USDA Organic certification, which doesn’t allow ethoxylation processes, and thus avoids the 1,4 dioxane problem altogether.

Here on Long Island, what goes down the drain in our homes has the potential to show up again when we turn on our faucets! There is no “away.”

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