Water quality — what we don’t know can hurt us plenty

We support the “Consumer Right to Know Act,” part of the governor’s executive budget.

“The more we know about chemicals in water and food, the more frightening the situation is,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in announcing his proposal. “There are 1,000 known carcinogens that are in products used every day.”

On this page just a few weeks ago we referenced the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel report in 2008-09 that concluded, “The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. That is, instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated.

“Moreover, instead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices, or activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.”

About 41 percent of people living in the United States will, during their lifetime, be diagnosed with cancer and about 21 percent will die of cancer.

The governor’s act would authorize the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, in consultation with its departments of state and health to develop regulations for on-package labeling requirements for designated products indicating the presence of potentially hazardous chemicals, including carcinogens.

The warnings would still be after-the-fact but at least it would give citizens a chance to stay away from products that could harm them, which is particularly important during an era when the federal government is rolling back many of its environmental protections.

The act would would extend the DEC’s household cleaning-product disclosure requirements to cover all cleaning products sold in the state, and it would give the Department of Health the authority to require similar disclosure for the manufacturers of personal-care products like shampoo, deodorant, or baby powder.

In the same way the state is trying to make up for federal-government shortfalls, we believe local government has an important role to play, too.

Earlier this month, our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, wrote about how disinfectant added to the town’s drinking water to keep it safe caused spikes of a chemical that could be dangerous. Like other municipalities, Guilderland chlorinates its drinking water to kill viruses and bacteria — and so it should, to protect the public from a wide variety of diseases. But the chlorine reacts with naturally occurring organic matter in the water, producing byproducts of total trihalomethanes, known as TTHMs, and haloacetic acids, which have demonstrated carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Therefore, the EPA sets standards for acceptable amounts of these byproducts in drinking water. Guilderland met the federal requirements by sending out a notice informing consumers of spikes in the TTHM levels and posting the notice on the town’s website.

Town leaders also outlined for Floyd Mair plans to reduce the levels of these chemicals in the future, including better filtering at the water plant, churning machines in the Watervliet Reservoir, similar mixers in the town’s water towers, and diversifying Guilderland’s water supply — for example, getting water from Rotterdam, which uses wells not prone to having disinfection byproducts.

This is a serious problem and we’re pleased the town is taking it seriously and seeking solutions.

It’s not a new problem for Guilderland, though. In September 2002, an Enterprise article — “Hot spots: Water woes beneath the surface” — uncovered the fact that many areas of Guilderland had levels of disinfection byproducts in the hundreds of parts per billion, well over the federal limit, mostly because they were at the end of unlooped water lines where chemicals became more concentrated.

The town then spent over $6 million dollars — looping water lines so chemicals wouldn’t sit in them for long periods, and installing a purification system — and thought the problem was solved.

Seventeen years ago, our reporters had to sift through binders of materials in the Guilderland library to uncover the problem. Now, in the Internet Age, that information should be at everyone’s fingertips.

Instead, we had to file a Freedom of Information Law request to get the most recent figures because town officials wouldn’t divulge them otherwise and neither would the county’s health department.

The figures in the most recent report are troubling. The federal Environmental Protection Agency sets 80 parts per billion as the limit for TTHMs and 60 parts per billion for haloacetic acid. Each quarter, Guilderland is to sample these chemicals at four locations. Testing is done in McKownville, near McKown Road; at the Westmere water tank; at Serafini Drive, off East Old State Road; and on Terry Avenue, off West Lydius Street.

It’s possible, under the federal system, for one of these locations to be above the limit while the average is below the limit — so no warning is triggered for the public. It’s also possible for a location to have a spike over the limit in one quarter but not in the other three quarters so that the average is below the limit, and no warning is triggered.

That is precisely what happened in Guilderland. Testing of haloacetic acids showed that Serafini Drive was above the federal limit for each of the last two quarters, but, since the average at that site over four quarters was below the limit, consumers were not warned of the danger.

All four locations in Guilderland were above 80 in TTHMs in the fourth quarter, triggering the notification. Town officials had said Terry Avenue was above the limit in the third and fourth quarters. They didn’t mention Serafini Drive was also above the limit in both of those quarters. So two locations, not one — half the testing sites — were above the limit in two consecutive quarters.

Beyond that, residents should know that many of the readings in recent years were close to federal limits.

The Enterprise is posting on our website the page from the most recent report that summarizes the readings so that residents can check to see if the water was safe where they live.

This is what the town should be doing, posting each report to its website.

Keeping residents informed is the best way to protect their health. Guilderland residents who live in locations that sometimes spike over the federal standards — pregnant women and infants are particularly vulnerable — may well want to buy filter systems for their water. The chemicals can enter the body through bathing as well as through drinking.

But residents can’t take this step to protect themselves if they are not aware there is a problem in the first place.

In fact, we urge the town to not only regularly post the water-quality reports that the federal government requires but perhaps hold a forum to inform the public how best to filter their water until the planned measures are in place. Answering questions thoroughly, fairly, and accurately is the best way to quell fears.

Knowledge is power.

Residents have a right to know what’s in their public drinking water. The best government is, as the president’s cancer panel indicated, precautionary rather than reactionary. We believe Guilderland can be that.

 

 

 

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