Concerns over Bethlehem’s water, an old report and a new notice of contaminants

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

The Vly Creek Reservoir in the center of New Scotland feeds the New Salem Water Treatment Plant. The reservoir, which is low this year, is owned by the neighboring town of Bethlehem.

ALBANY COUNTY — A report compiled last month by the Environmental Working Group describes amounts of chromium-6, a carcinogen, found in 2013 in a Bethlehem water treatment plant that supplies water to some households in the town of New Scotland.

One question that arises out of the report is whether the levels, which are below the federal limit, should be cause for concern. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 100 parts per billion has been called into question after the National Toxicology Program found that mice developed stomach cancer after drinking water laced with chromium-6, albeit at levels far higher than the EPA standard (scientists use higher doses on animals to test for effects of low doses occurring over a human’s lifespan).

Dr. Tom Brady, of the Albany County Health Department, explained that the federal regulation of 100 parts per billion compiles both chromium-3 and chromium-6. This federal regulation is what New York State follows, said Brady.

The Environmental Working Group, an independent advocacy organization, put out a report on Sept. 20 that includes data on certain water districts tested for levels of chromium-6 under the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule. In Albany County, with eight samples and eight detections of the contaminant, Latham had an average of 0.09 parts per billion. Cohoes, with eight samples and eight detections as well, had an average of 0.28 parts per billion. Albany had six samples and six detections, with an average of 0.07 parts per billion. With 12 samples and one detection, Guilderland had an average of 0.005 parts per billion; the sole Guilderland sample with chromium-6 contamination had 0.06 parts per billion.

Bethlehem’s water district, listed as Bethlehem Water District #1 New Salem, had 14 samples and eight detections, with an average of 0.11 parts per billion. Countywide, the average was 0.103 parts per billion, with the highest level recorded 0.44 parts per billion in the Bethlehem Water District.

The town of Bethlehem has a reservoir in neighboring New Scotland; the New Salem Treatment Plant — which serves parts of the town of New Scotland — was recorded as having 0.44 parts per billion in January 2013 and 0.43 in April 2013. By October 2013, the levels at the New Salem Plant were down to 0.08 parts per billion. The last two years of tests had not even detected chromium in Bethlehem’s water, said Brady.

Even at the levels of January 2013, there is little concern, particularly when inhalation of the carcinogen is a greater worry than drinking it in water, said Brady.

Brady was unsure of how the levels of chromium dropped below detection, but assumes that, at 0.44 parts per billion, the levels were already so low that the contaminants were simply washed out of the water supply over time. The water is normally tested from a tap just after going through the plant’s treatments, he said.

However, the the plant’s 2013 results are relatively higher than California’s Public Health Goal of 0.02 parts per billion. California’s state regulation of chromium-6 is 10 parts per billion.

“The reality of it is that many of our federal standards are much too loose,” said Dr. David Carpenter, director for the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany and professor of environmental health sciences at the university.“I think California has been in general much more rigorous than the rest of the U.S..”

Carpenter attributed looser regulations to considerations for the cost of removing the contaminant from municipal water systems, as well as pressure from industries.

Representatives from the New York State Bureau of Water Supply Protection noted that data from the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule showed only values as low as as 0.03 parts per billion. Levels below that were undetectable and listed as zero amounts. In reviewing this data, representatives said that, with a maximum value of 7.3 parts per billion, no water source in the state went above California’s state regulation of 10 parts per billion. New York State’s Water Quality Rapid Response Team, a group formed in February to address drinking water concerns, will be analyzing these results to see if anything needs to be addressed in the state, representatives said.

According to Carpenter, although the contaminant has other health effects, its primary risk as a carcinogen is causing cancer.

“The problem is that when you are exposed to a carcinogen you don’t develop cancer tomorrow,” he said, noting that the effects are long-term. Carpenter said that, when looking at various counties in the region, some have twice the reports of a certain type of cancer. Carpenter has inferred that some kind of carcinogenic exposure that occurred long ago is to blame.

Carpenter, noting that chromium is a natural element, said the carcinogen likely contaminated local water supplies after leaching out of the earth, although he is only speculating due to the fact there are few industrial factories nearby, he said.

However, Brady said that it is likely contaminants of chromium came from dust traveling from miles away, as it is normally an industrial by-product. State representatives said sources could be either industrial or natural, and that this was one of the questions being addressed by the state’s Water Quality Rapid Response Team.


The Enterprise — Michael Koff
The New Salem Water Treatment Plant serves parts of the town of New Scotland where it is based, but is part of Bethlehem’s public water system.


An organic carcinogen

Meanwhile, the town of Bethlehem has been working to lower the total trihalomethanes at the Clapper Road Water Treatment Plant. A location at Wemple Road was found to have levels at 114 parts per billion in August of this year, higher than the EPA standard of 80 parts per billion, according to a release from the town. The town tests their water quarterly, and has found levels higher than EPA standards in past tests at the Wemple Road site. The town found the average from November 2015 to August 2016 to be 92 parts per billion.

The EPA, said Brady, has given the town an order to fix these levels.

The town of Guilderland had trihalomethane readings above EPA standards in 2002 and corrected the problem by looping its pipes so that water wouldn’t sit at the end of long lines where chemicals became concentrated.

In 2013, the New Salem Treatment Plant had similarly high levels, but its plumbing was restructured so the total trihalomethanes could no longer form, said Brady.

Trihalomethanes form when organic matter in the water reacts with chlorine used in the water system as a disinfectant.

Bethlehem issued a press release stating that the contaminants did not constitute an emergency, as there are no known short-term impacts from the contaminants, but there are reports of health effects from drinking excessive amounts over the long-term (this notification by the town follows a template provided by the EPA with this statement).

Robin Woods, a spokeswoman with the EPA, told The Enterprise at the time Guilderland had high trihalomethane readings that liver and kidney cancer and central nervous system damage are potential risks.

“People who drink water that contains byproducts in excess of EPA standards over many years have a high risk for these diseases,” she said.

New Salem’s treatment plant was accruing higher levels of trihalomethanes, said Brady, because the water could sit in the pipes for too long and allow a reaction that would form the carcinogens. The solution was to add extra piping so water could flow further before having chlorine added to it.

The Clapper Road treatment plant, said Brady, has accumulated high levels of trihalomethanes for a different reason. High levels of iron in the water have to be treated with extra chlorine. The solution here is to add an extra treatment system to remove iron from the water without chlorine, then later treat the water with a normal amount of chlorine, said Brady.

“It’s a balancing act,” he added.

Carpenter stated that, while the total trihalomethanes were organically formed, they are still carcinogens.

“I don’t agree that it is not something to worry about,” he said, wondering again if the federal standards were as rigorous as they should be.

“We need to tighten our standards and we need to enforce them,” he said.

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