A lookout H2O in the 516

It was just over three years ago when Flint, Michigan made headlines for its increasingly unsafe drinking water. Unusually high levels of lead had been found in the tap water, posing a threat to over 100,000 residents of the city. A federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016 and Flint residents were advised to drink, and to only drink, bottle or  filtered water for all purposes.  Thanks to an abundance of water treatment and after lots of national attention, the water quality has returned to an almost-acceptable level. For now. Closer to home, Port Washington faced an alarming situation a few years ago when, according to the Environmental Water Group, a tap water database, contaminants were detected in the water supply that can cause cancer in the long run: 1,4 dioxane, chromium, and heptachlorepoxide.

While the Water District has been making great strides in terms of purifying local water supplies in recent years, water pollution has become an issue that’s no longer possible to ignore. On Feb. 9, 2016, the Western Long Island Aquifer Committee (made up of officials from Port Washington and surrounding towns) wrote a letter to the New York State Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader asking for improved water quality inspections.  The letter noted that Nassau County has 150 superfund sites—polluted areas that require long-term cleanup efforts—the most of any county in New York State.

In order to understand the problems facing Port Washington’s water supply, it’s important to go back to the source. So where exactly does our water come from?

According to the Annual Drinking Water Quality Report for 2016 from the Port Washington Water District, the usual sources of drinking water, which includes both bottled and tap water, are lakes, streams, rivers, springs, reservoirs, ponds, and wells. While the water moves through the ground or over the surface on land, it dissolves naturally occurring minerals. During this time, the water may also be combined with dangerous materials. These include remains from human and animal activity and radioactive material. As a result, a diverse variety of contaminants may be present in the source water, a few being pesticides, herbicides, and organic chemical contaminants. For the Port Washington Water District specifically, our main water source is groundwater.

The water is pumped  from 12 wells, which range from 90 to 600 feet in depth. These wells are located at eight different stations across the District and are drilled into the Port Washington, Magothy, and Lloyd aquifers situated beneath Long Island. Though New York State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established regulations to limit the presence of contaminants in the water supplied by public water systems, some pollutants manage to slip through.

The Nassau County Department of Health conducted an evaluation of both the potential and real threats to our drinking water source and found that one of our wells has a medium high susceptibility to contamination to microbes. “Sometimes I drink from our sink water even though I buy bottled water from stores like Costco,” said junior Hannah Roth.  “Knowing this now is making me more worried.”

These levels of susceptibility are likely a result of transportation routes and industrial facilities in the area, as well as land practices by residents like fertilization on unsewered lawns.

“I think I’ve always just been kind of wary about drinking our town’s tap water in general,” said junior Gaby Chu. “The thought of pollutants and contaminants getting into what I drink plays a large role in that.”

But what about city water? Many believe that the quality of New York City’s water supply is better than ours since it is imported, but is this really true? Unlike Port, the city gets its water from a surface supply system made up of controlled lakes and reservoirs located throughout a watershed. The overwhelming majority of their water comes from the Catskill/ Delaware supply, which is of such high quality that filtration is not needed to treat the water. Still, others argue that the possible negative health effects and metallic taste from the chemicals used to disinfect the water, namely chlorine and fluorine, takes away from the perceived perks of city water.

Meanwhile, though well water also has somewhat of a reputable reputation for carrying natural minerals, it is absolutely crucial for well water to be completely treated and not have an excess amount of natural minerals for the safety and health of all of us. As a coastal community, Port Washington’s water supply is susceptible to a number of threats.

According to the 2016 water quality report, all of our twelve wells have a high to very high susceptibility to nitrates. In this report, 6.25 mg/L of nitrates were detected. Although this is less than the maximum contaminant level of 10 mg/L, the report indicates that nitrate levels have risen above half of the MCL. This is largely due to unsewered residential land use, nitrogen-based land fertilizers, and commercial and industrial activity. In addition, these levels may temporarily increase rapidly due to changes in rainfall or agricultural activity.

“If we find that there are problems with regulated contaminants like nitrates, we take prompt and measured action to put in filtration systems and keep everything up to standard,” said Paul Granger, who sits on the state Drinking Water Quality Council and is the superintendent of the Port Washington Water District.

When nitrates reach bays, rivers, and the Long Island Sound, it can cause excessive algal growth that blocks light and therefore depletes oxygen supply in the water, harming marine life. High levels of nitrates may also lead to blue baby syndrome, a type of anemia found in infants, decreased thyroid function, spontaneous abortion, and cancer. 1,4 dioxane has also been a chemical high on the Water District’s radar. The synthetic chemical, which is used as a stabilizer for industrial chemicals, can also be found in laundry detergent, soap, shampoo, and body wash, has not yet been federally regulated, but has been found in trace amounts in Long Island’s groundwater supply and is still an issue of concern.

“We’re looking at creating an acceptable standard for the chemical. It’s an emerging compound, so new information is constantly coming out,” said Mr. Granger. “1,4 Dioxane isn’t removed easily with treatment methods, and there’s no approved treatment technology yet, which shows how new this is for everybody.”

Not only has the federal government failed to establish a standard for 1,4 dioxane, but the state of New York also has yet to make and enforce regulations. According to the New York State Department of Health, 1,4 dioxane is classified as an Unspecified Organic Contaminant, and although trace amounts of up to 1.9 ppb have been found in Port’s water, the NYSDOH’s maximum contaminant level is 50 ppb, which is substantially higher. All Long Island public water suppliers are required to test all of their supply wells multiple times per year for 144 different parameters, which include volatile organic chemicals, inorganics, pesticides, and herbicides.

On August 20, 2015, EWG pointed out that the Town of Hempstead contained amounts of PFOA, or per uorooctanoic acid, a compound found in numerous industrial and commercial products. In a 2016 article called “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” The New York Times magazine referenced Nassau County as a location with a high concentration of fluorochemicals. Due to industrial processes all over the country that have been going on for decades, exposure to small doses of chemicals is practically inevitable.  The article focused on PFOA and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, a similar compound.

“If you are a sentient being reading this article…you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there?  rough the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water,” wrote Nathaniel Rich in the article.

Seniors Saige Gitlin, Ali Hoffman, and Molly McLoughlin were inspired to conduct a research project concerning the effects of these chemicals after learning about the presence of PFOA in human breast milk.

“The chemicals are so harmful because they enter the environment so easily,” said Hoffman. “PFOA is difficult to remove and builds up quickly because it is non-biodegradable and has a high bioaccumulation rate. BHT has a low vapor pressure so it easily evaporated o of rubber and plastic products and enters the environment.”

Over the course of their two-year project, these students exposed PFOA and BHT to aquatic and terrestrial organisms, sea stars and earthworms speci cally, and measured the effects of these chemicals on the organism’s motility.  Through their study, they found that both of these chemicals caused detrimental loss of motor function.

“This decreased mobility decreased the survival chances of these animals, and also suggests that the chemicals could be having a similar impact on humans,” said Gitlin. “Because of this, it is important that we  find ways to remove them from our water and food supply.”

McLoughlin continued the project this

year, as she developed a filtration method

to remove harmful chemicals like PFOA

from the water supply.

“Because of their environmental persistence,

they have become very hard to

remove from water, so it is imperative

that a effective filtration system is made

in order to prevent any future harm these

chemicals cause,” said McLoughlin.

In order to avoid being exposed to

chemicals such as these, as well as other

possible water contaminants, there are

many filtration options available. Aside

from built-in home filtration systems, Brita

lters, as well as reusable water bottles

with their own filters, are both viable options.

Others look to bottled water as a safer

alternative to tap water. However, one

should be wary when considering the

benefits of bottled water versus tap water.

For instance, in 2012, Nestle was sued

as a result of falsely advertising their bottled

water as being natural spring water,

when it was actually just tap water. Furthermore,

almost 50% of bottled water

has been found to simply be purified tap

water, and many experts believe that tap

water actually has tighter regulations than

bottled water.

“Tap water is safe and federally regulated,so people should limit the use of bottled water because those bottles generally end up in land fills, or the plastic can leach into the water,” said environmental science teacher Ms. Julia Brandt. “Even recycling can be problematic because it

takes additional energy and resources to

process the bottles.”

In a poll conducted by The Schreiber

Times, 56% of students said that they

drink filtered water or bottled water at

home, while only 36% drink tap water.

As for when they are at school, 89% percent

of students indicated that they prefer

to bring water from home as opposed to

drinking water from school. If they do

drink water from the school, they prefer

to get it from the hydration station, as opposed

to the regular water fountains.

In response to the Western Long Island

Aquifer Committee’s 2016 letter to

New York State officials, the state established

a twelve-member Drinking Water

Quality Council this year, and because

Mr. Granger is a member of the council,

Port now has a direct connection to state

decisions regarding water quality. If you

wish to learn more about water treatment

in Port Washington, the Water District

makes annual reports publicly available online.