Experts want new health standard for likely carcinogen in NJ drinking water

Absent federal benchmark, advocates praise state for setting a limit
Credit: Johnny McClung on Unsplash
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Environmental activists welcomed a new recommendation by state scientists to regulate a toxic chemical, calling it the latest evidence of New Jersey’s efforts to curb contaminants in drinking water.

The Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of scientists and water company executives that advises the Department of Environmental Protection, has recommended one of the nation’s strictest standards for 1,4 dioxane, which is commonly used in solvents, paint strippers, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The chemical is unregulated by the federal government even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls it a “likely” carcinogen.

The panel said DEP should set a Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) of 0.33 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water as the upper limit for safe consumption by humans. The standard is based on the risk of one person in a million getting cancer if exposed to 0.35 parts per billion over a lifetime.

If confirmed, the proposed regulation would require water companies to keep their supplies below that level, if necessary installing technology that would control the chemical. DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe asked the water quality panel in December 2018 to develop a recommendation for that maximum limit.

Limits on other chemicals

It was the latest action by the panel which in the last six years has recommended tough limits on three kinds of PFAS chemicals, which are also linked to cancer, as well as immune system disorders and other health conditions. All the earlier recommendations have been accepted by DEP and are now the basis of regulations that have established New Jersey as a national leader in protecting public health from the chemicals.

The latest proposal is a “really important recommendation,” said Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network and a long-time campaigner for tighter regulation of chemicals in drinking water. She said the proposed limit is stricter than in most of the 13 states that already have a drinking water or groundwater health standard for the chemical.

But she urged the DEP to act quickly on the proposal to minimize the time that consumers are exposed to the chemical. Its recent regulation of PFAS chemicals has taken as much as three years to be finalized after the initial recommendation by water quality panel.

“We don’t want there to be a delay in the DEP rulemaking and the adoption of a MCL because we’ve got to get this very dangerous material out of people’s drinking water,” Carluccio said.

EPA tests in 2013-2015 found the chemical at above the proposed health limit in 17.2% of New Jersey’s public water systems, or almost three times the national rate, according to data presented to the water quality panel’s meeting on Sept. 30. It has been found at any level in 110 water systems.

Humans are mostly exposed to 1,4 dioxane through drinking water that’s contaminated by the output of wastewater treatment plants and from spills or leaks, according to data from the DWQI’s health effects subcommittee. The chemical is released in air, water and soil from facilities where it is made or used but it degrades in the atmosphere so is not a concern there, the panel said in a presentation.

It can be removed from drinking water

The panel said there are few studies on how the chemical affects human health, but it has been found to cause tumors in “multiple organs” of rats, mice and guinea pigs. The subcommittee agreed with the EPA’s warning that 1,4 dioxane is “likely” to be carcinogenic.

Another group in the water quality panel said the chemical can be removed from drinking water by using Advanced Oxidation Processes, which would allow water companies to achieve the standard, if implemented.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, welcomed the new proposed standard for 1,4 dioxane.

“It is critical that the DWQI has recommended such a strong standard for 1,4-Dioxane,” he said. “It is important for the DEP to adopt and implement this new standard as quickly as possible because it will also become the groundwater and cleanup standard in New Jersey.”

The day after the water quality panel published its recommendation, a coalition of business groups filed a legal petition challenging the DEP’s “unrealistic and unsupportable” regulation of PFAS.

The filing by the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey seeks to halt implementation of the recent PFAS regulations, pending a legal review of the science that DEP followed in writing the regulations, and of whether the department followed regulatory practices.

“While the coalition members support appropriate PFAS management, New Jersey established these arbitrarily low thresholds without meaningful public engagement or rational scientific basis,” the group said in a press release.