Advocacy group says some substances top recommended health limits; most samples met standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Drinking water supplied by New Jersey utilities between 2012 and 2017 contained 107 contaminants — some of which were at levels that advocates say are harmful to human health, according to a survey published on Wednesday.
The advocacy organization Environmental Working Group used data from the state Department of Environmental Protection on drinking water quality at New Jersey’s 579 utilities, as part of its national U.S. Tap Water Database, a biennial report. The latest tally of contaminants was 26 more than in the last report, covering the years 2010-2015, which was released two years ago.
In New Jersey, the report found some samples from larger utilities contained contaminants at levels that exceeded health limits as recommended by other states or by the nonprofit itself, although nearly all samples met standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Although the samples were taken as long ago as 2012, the contamination levels found are probably the same now unless a supply has been treated, said Chris Campbell, vice president for information technology at EWG.
“It is likely, barring installation of some form of treatment, that the levels now are similar to 2015-2017, which is the timeframe used on most contaminants,” he said.
The ‘Erin Brokovich’ chemical
The most common contaminant in New Jersey was hexavalent chromium, the so-called “Erin Brockovich Chemical” — named after the well-known public-health campaigner in California — that is used in the manufacture of dyes, paints, inks and plastics, and can cause lung cancer if regularly inhaled, according to federal health experts. The chemical was found at above EWG-recommended health limits in the water of 202 New Jersey utilities serving some 7.5 million people, the report said.
The second most common contaminant was bromodichloromethane, a chemical formed when chlorine is used to disinfect drinking water, and which has been linked in animal studies to cancer of the liver, kidneys and intestines, according to federal scientists. In New Jersey, there were 193 utilities serving some 5.1 million people where the chemical was found at above EWG’s recommended health limits, the report said.
EWG bases many of its health recommendations on standards set by California, or its own research. In New Jersey, there were 10 contaminants that exceeded the EWG-recommended health levels but only two that exceeded federal legal limits, the report said.
Utilities where multiple contaminants were found included Atlantic City, which had 10 chemicals that exceeded EWG’s health standards — the same number as in the 2017 survey. Still, the city’s water met all federal health requirements between January and March this year, the report said.
The Atlantic City contaminants included PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfate), one of the potentially carcinogenic PFAS family of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, at 33 times EWG’s recommended limit, and the related chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) at 12 times the limit. The PFOA level was just within a new health limit that’s being adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection, while the PFOS level exceeded the state standard. EWG said it had no information on the source of contamination at Atlantic City.
Meeting federal standards
Atlantic City’s water also contained arsenic at 31 times EWG’s health guideline, and chloroform that was 40 times higher than the recommended EWG health limit. Arsenic is the only one of the 10 contaminants in the city’s water that’s subject to a federal legal limit of 10 micrograms per liter.
Still, Atlantic City, whose water system serves about 152,000 customers, complied with federal standards on lead, the survey found. Only 3.2% of the households sampled in Atlantic City exceeded the EPA’s lead health limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb) during the latest testing in 2017.
Among other utilities, New Jersey American Water’s western region system, serving some 264,000 people, also exceeded EWG’s health guidelines for 10 contaminants including hexavalent chromium and chloroform, neither of which have a legal limit.
New Jersey American Water said the substances identified by EWG in its water are mostly by-products of water disinfectants, which meet all regulatory requirements, and were previously reported to the DEP. Others are chemicals in source water at levels well below “recognized” state or federal drinking water standards.
“While we do not specifically treat for these unregulated compounds, their presence is affected by the overall treatment process,” the company said in a statement. “New Jersey American Water treats and delivers water that meets or surpasses EPA and New Jersey drinking water standards.”
Using California’s public health goals
The company’s president, Cheryl Norton, said the health limits advocated by EWG often use California’s public health goals that are a lot stricter than implemented state standards that take into account other factors like detectability and the cost of treatment. For example, she said California’s enforceable limit for arsenic is 2,500 times higher than its public health goal and matches the federal level.
At Woodbridge-based Middlesex Water, serving about 233,000 customers, hexavalent chromium and PFOA were both found at above recommended levels.
Middlesex’s chief executive, Dennis Doll, said the report was in line with the company’s own findings. “We don’t agree with the EWG’s methodology but the results they are reporting are not an unreasonable representation of our numbers,” he wrote in an email.
He noted that EWG’s health limits are recommendations, not regulations, and so the reported levels do not violate any legal limit. He called EWG’s proposed limit of 1 part per trillion (ppt) for PFOA “outrageously low and not based on sound science.” The PFOA level in the EWG report is based on only one Middlesex well, and so represents a very small part of the company’s overall system, he said.
While the PFOA level in the Middlesex system topped EWG’s recommendation, it was within the level that is being adopted by the DEP.
Unsound science driving ‘race to zero’?
The Water Research Foundation, a national group that Doll chairs, believes pressure on utilities and regulators from EWG and other advocates is resulting in “a race to zero” that he said is not being driven by sound science or EPA policy.
Still, EWG said the data shows that the EPA should set stricter standards on drinking water contaminants. “Legal does not necessarily equal safe,” the group said. “Getting a passing grade from the federal government does not mean the water meets the latest health guidelines.”
For its part, the EPA said it has set enforceable maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) for some chemicals including arsenic and chloroform, and has issued a number of regulations since the 1995 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act to reduce the risks of pathogens in ground water and surface water, and from disinfection by-products.
On PFAS, the agency reiterated that it will decide by the end of this year whether to begin regulating PFOA and PFOS, and is evaluating other PFAS chemicals for possible regulation.
Andrea Drinkard, a spokeswoman for EPA, said the agency distinguishes between the enforcement levels and “Maximum Contaminant Limit Goals” (MCLGs), as set by the Safe Drinking Water Act. For example, the MCLG for arsenic is zero because there is no level of arsenic in water that is without risk, but the EPA has set 10 micrograms per liter as the enforcement level “in accordance with SDWA requirements that EPA consider the feasibility, costs, and benefits when establishing regulations,” she said.
Arsenic is one of 14 contaminants for which New Jersey has stricter limits than the EPA, according to the DEP’s Annual Compliance Report for 2018, which describes the different standards that water utilities are required to meet. That report names 49 water systems that exceeded maximum contaminant limits for different chemicals during the year, and another 29 that topped the EPA’s “action levels” on lead and copper.
The survey comes as New Jersey lawmakers and advocates step up their efforts to renew aging water pipes and sewers that leak drinking water and spill raw sewage during rainstorms. Municipal and investor-owned water utilities are also working to ensure that public water supplies are free of contaminants such as the lead that comes from antiquated pipes, and the PFAS chemicals that persist in many water systems long after their industrial uses have ended.
On Oct. 10, Gov. Phil Murphy set a target of replacing the state’s estimated 350,000 lead service lines — pipes that connect individual homes with water transmission lines — within 10 years. He proposed a $500 million bond to help utilities comply with the target, which is expected to cost some $2 billion in total.
Murphy’s initiative came on the same day as a major report on lead from Jersey Water Works, a consortium dedicated to renewing the state’s antiquated water infrastructure, and followed recent alarm over lead contamination in Newark where authorities are already replacing lead lines and helping residents install in-home filters.