In the 1990s, state environmental officials began detecting hundreds of unregulated chemicals from household, commercial and industrial compounds in New Jersey’s drinking water, often at levels not addressed by then-current regulatory standards.
At one point in 2004, the agency briefly considered requiring water systems to install “treatment technology" to reduce the level of chemicals in the water, which included pharmaceuticals and household cleaners, but shelved the effort.
Now, at a time when the state is engaged in various studies to assess how best to deal with the problem, an advocacy group is petitioning the agency to revisit the issue, order the monitoring of compounds and require water systems to treat the drinking water.
The request, submitted to Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, argues that unregulated compounds “pose significant adverse risks to human health and the environment," according to the petition filed by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Since the issue arose in the 1990s, state testing has found approximately 600 different unregulated compounds in 199 water samples, including five bottled waters that are sold in New Jersey, according to a white paper DEP issued this past April. Several research projects are now underway to decide how or whether to proceed with a treatment-based approach, the paper said.
New Jersey has an aggressive program requiring public water systems to monitor supplies for a couple dozen chemical contaminants, a result of a law passed more than 25 years ago after many chemicals kept appearing in drinking water. In this case, however, the state’s Drinking Water Quality Institute set maximum contaminant levels for each substance, based on long-term health effects of ingesting the compound.
Such an approach is not deemed feasible for dealing with low-level contamination risks posed by hundreds of unregulated compounds, according to the white paper. Instead, it noted the state is studying a treatment-based approach, such as using carbon filters to remove the contaminants.
Bill Wolfe, a former employee of DEP and now New Jersey PEER director, suggested it is worth pursuing. “Pretreatment of drinking water is not a panacea but would be a major step forward,’’ he said, noting that carbon filtration removed roughly half of the contaminants in water supplies. “The alternative is having the public serve as a chemical sponge for hundreds of unregulated compounds coming out of spigots every day.’’
The cost would not be prohibitive, Wolfe argued. He cited the white paper’s assessment of a granulated active-carbon system capable of treating 1 million gallons per day, or the equivalent of serving 10,000 homes as costing $1.2 million in capital costs with annual operation and maintenance costs in the range of $50,000 to $100,000.
“When you break that down, it amounts to less than a nickel per day per household," he said.
The state earlier this year launched a pilot research project with United Water to test treatment options for removing these unregulated compounds, according to John Dyksen, vice president of capital planning for the Harrington Park company. Dysken said the utility has yet to receive any results back from the project.
“There are a lot of questions about the health effects of these compounds,’’ Dyksen said. “The research to look at the health effects on humans is just beginning. Some people say the health effects are very minimal. What we do know there have been effects on fish and other animals, such as alligators.’’
United Water has been using a granulated carbon system in Toms River for about 10 years, or ever since community concerns were voiced about a possible link between childhood cancer and drinking water contaminants.
DEP officials did not choose to comment when asked about the white paper and petition.