Elixir of life or toxic cocktail? How well do you know what’s in your water?

Life, including human life, cannot exist without water. Clean water is in jeopardy with federal rollbacks, leaving states and municipalities to look after the welfare of their residents.

We return to this important topic as the state budget deadline approaches and the governor and legislators prepare to battle or compromise on how tax dollars will be spent.

We commend the New York State Senate for proposing $2.5 billion to fund clean-water infrastructure. The Environmental Advocates of New York say that $80 billion for water infrastructure is needed as municipalities across the state call for funding. The State Assembly has proposed $10 million for New York’s Lead Service Line Replacement Program.

On this page in 2016, we commended the state for requiring schools to test for and correct high lead levels. New York also requires that all 1- and 2-year-olds be screened for lead. This allows parents to make changes before irreparable harm is done to a child’s brain.

But we also wrote that homes need to be tested and in areas, like the one we cover, that are not poor enough to qualify for state funds to pay for the testing, we urged municipalities to pick up the slack to pay for water tests in households that can’t afford them. This hasn’t happened and we believe hundreds of residents in our coverage area may be drinking water with levels of lead that can harm them.

The funding for the Lead Service Line Replacement Program, if it stays in the state budget, will help to replace lead water pipes.

An Environmental Quality Institute report says, “The harmful effects of lead occur even at concentrations below the current ‘level of concern’ ... Lead may in fact exert the largest incremental effects on IQ at blood levels below” that.

Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures, and solder, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the towns we cover certainly have a lot of houses older than that.

Most of the lead problems — except in egregious cases like Flint, Michigan — come not from a public water supply but from the pipes inside a house. The EPA requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver annual water quality reports for their customers by July 1 of each year.

The towns we cover have, over the years, by and large had good reports but the problem can remain inside local homes. And, also, many local homes depend on private wells, not public water supplies.

As the EPA points out, since you can’t see, taste, or smell lead dissolved in water, testing is the only way of knowing if there are harmful quantities of it in your water. We urged residents then as we do now to spend the estimated $20 to $100 the EPA says it costs to test your water for lead. If levels are high, filters designed to reduce lead may be installed, pipes may be lined, or fixtures may be replaced.

The budget proposals for both the Assembly and the Senate reject the governor’s proposal to use funding from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund to cover staffing costs. As the federal government is weakening environmental protections, states need to increase their vigilance, so the governor’s plan to divert such funds is unwise.

For the same reason that states need to step up to protect their citizens, municipalities need to step up, too. Local governments can form the first line of defense in seeing that drinking water is safe for residents.

In January, our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, wrote about the town’s plans to reduce levels of total trihalomethanes, known as TTHMs, in publicly-provided drinking water. Disinfectant added to the town’s drinking water to keep it safe caused spikes of this chemical, which could be dangerous. The chlorine reacts with naturally occurring organic matter in the water, producing byproducts of TTHMs and haloacetic acids, which have demonstrated carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, according to the EPA.

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.

The EPA 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. 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. We urged on this page in January that the town post each report to its website, as we did, so residents would be informed.

We haven’t seen such postings, but Floyd Mair followed through with a Freedom of Information Law request to get the results of the latest quarterly report, for water samples collected on Feb. 12.  The levels for both haloacetic acid and TTHMs were below the maximum contaminant level at all four Guilderland testing sites, the Feb. 26 report said.

However, levels of monochloroacetic acid were above the EPA guidelines of 60 micrograms per liter at Serafini Drive (.88), at Terry Avenue (.98), and at the Westmere water tower (.90).

According to a report of the National Research Council of the National Academies, “Monochloroacetic acid (MCAA) is a colorless crystalline material, which is highly soluble in water and soluble in organic solvents … MCAA is produced by chlorination of acetic acid or hydrolysis of trichloroethylene … MCAA is an acid (pKa, 2.85) and, therefore, can cause eye and skin irritation upon contact with a diluted MCAA solution and can cause skin corrosion and conjunctival burns upon contact with more concentrated solutions.

“The systemic toxicity of MCAA is caused by inhibition of enzymes of the glycolytic pathway and the tricarboxylic acid cycle. This metabolic blockage damages organs with a high-energy demand, such as heart, central nervous system (CNS), and muscles, and leads to metabolic acidosis due to the accumulation of lactic acid and citric acid in the body.”

Another chemical that is a byproduct of chlorination, dibromoacetic acid, a human and animal neurotoxicant, was also found to be over the 60-micrograms-per-liter limit allowed by the EPA in two Guilderland testing sites on Feb. 12, the report says.

Here we return to a familiar editorial refrain: Knowledge is power. Municipalities need to inform their residents so that residents can take action to protect themselves if they so choose.

Guilderland residents who live in locations where chemicals 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.

Similarly, residents whose home drinking water tests high for lead levels may want to reduce lead exposure, particularly for children and pregnant women, by taking simple everyday steps if they can’t afford to rehaul their plumbing system or if they rent their homes.

Only cold water should be used for cooking or drinking. “Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead,” says the EPA.

Also, pipes should be flushed before drinking. “The more time water has been sitting in your home’s pipes, the more lead it may contain,” says the EPA. “If a tap has not been used for more than six hours, this could be from five seconds to two minutes — until the water becomes as cold as it can get.”

Finally, a Knox resident, Eric Marczak, wrote us a stirring letter this month, urging that the safety of water in the Hilltowns be taken seriously. Marczak, a member of the Knox Zoning Board of Appeals, worked for the state’s Department of Health for 29 years, testing water quality as a mass-spectrometer analyst. He writes that his own well, when he lived in Glenville, was shut down for pollution.

He asserts, correctly we believe, that a rural town like Knox will never be able to afford a public water system. Westerlo took on the task for its hamlet in 2005, but the expensive system — it cost over a million dollars to build — has been plagued with problems. The latest is levels of bromomethane are more than twice the state standard when last reported with no funding in sight for the needed filter.

The karst topography in the Helderbergs — where limestone has dissolved, leaving sinkholes and fissures — allows water, and its pollutants, to travel quickly underground.

The late Daniel Driscoll, who was instrumental, with Guilderland’s Lindsay Childs, in creating a researched regional planning document for the Helderberg Hilltowns and the towns beneath the escarpment, New Scotland and Guilderland, ran dye tests years ago. Dye flushed in the Hilltowns showed up in the towns beneath the escarpment.

That means that the issue of water safety in the Hilltowns affects residents in all of the towns we cover. Marczak notes that over 24 million pounds of pesticides were applied in one year by professionals in New York State, with over a million pounds in Albany County alone. “That’s one year and not counting what the public uses,” says Marczak.

He notes further that the state has earmarked grant money for municipalities to test water on their own. We urge towns to apply for these funds, both to become aware of any problems and to set a baseline in case problems arise later.

We’ll stress this one more time: Knowledge is power. We urge state budget-builders to include the funds municipalities need to see that water is safe. We urge municipal leaders to inform the public of what they know and to apply for funds to find out what they don’t.

Unlike budget costs, the costs to human health are incalculable.

More Editorials