DEP urged to set tough limit on likely carcinogen in drinking water

Science advisers say utilities should curb 1,4-dioxane to protect public health
Credit: (musiking from Pixabay)
File photo

A science panel Thursday urged the Department of Environmental Protection to set one the nation’s strictest standards for a likely carcinogenic chemical in drinking water, in New Jersey’s latest initiative to protect public health from water-borne contaminants.

The Drinking Water Quality Institute, a group of scientists and water company executives that advises the DEP, unanimously recommended that the level of 1,4-dioxane, a synthetic chemical used in products including adhesives, resins and waxes, should be regulated to a level of no more than 0.33 parts per billion in drinking water.

The so-called maximum contaminant limit was recommended by the panel in draft form last year, and now formally forwarded to the DEP which will decide whether to propose it in a new rule. If the limit is adopted, it would require water companies to ensure that the chemical doesn’t exceed that level in public water systems.

The chemical caused tumors in multiple organs of rats, mice and guinea pigs during laboratory testing, the water panel said in explaining the reasons for its recommendation. It’s one of a class of “emerging contaminants” which are found in pharmaceuticals, personal care or household cleaning products, lawn care, farm agricultural products, and many other applications, and may not be regulated by state or federal governments.

Animal studies have found that exposure to the chemical causes an increased risk of tumors of the liver, gall bladder and nasal cavity, and short-term exposure could result in nausea, headaches, drowsiness, and irritation of the ears, nose and throat, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Scientists say water is main source of exposure

The EPA says the chemical is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” via all routes of exposure, including drinking water, which scientists say is the main source of exposure.

Late in 2018, the DEP set a standard for 1,4-dioxane in groundwater in New Jersey, joining 17 other states that have drinking water or groundwater guidelines.

New Jersey has a higher rate of contamination from 1,4-dioxane than the nation, EPA data shows. Tests in 2013-15 found the chemical in 17% of New Jersey’s public water systems at levels that exceeded the recommended health limit, almost three times the national rate of 6.6%.

The EPA has classed 1,4-dioxane as a “likely” carcinogen but does not regulate it nationally. At the end of last year, the agency said the chemical poses “unreasonable risks” for workers who are exposed to it through activities such as manufacturing or repackaging.

But it concluded the chemical “does not present an unreasonable risk” for commercial and industrial uses such as  in polyurethane foam applications, or in consumer products such as laundry and dishwashing products, paints and coatings.

During Thursday’s approximately 80-minute meeting, the chair of the panel’s subcommittee on health effects, Jessie Gleason, rebutted written comments submitted late last year in response to the draft recommendation.

Rebutting criticism 

In response to a claim that the water quality institute had relied only on a California standard in making its recommendation, Gleason said the subcommittee “did a thorough review” of standards set by other states.

In response to a comment that the panel’s recommendation differed from others in countries including Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, she said the institute followed EPA guidelines.

On Thursday, the Chemistry Council of New Jersey accused the panel of not providing the DEP with the full scientific information that it needs to decide whether to move forward with the recommended health limit.

The trade group also said the water quality institute had not fully considered the EPA’s conclusions that the chemical posed no unreasonable risk to consumers.

“The Chemistry Council of New Jersey has long advocated for greater transparency and public input with respect to DWQI’s activities,” its executive director, Dennis Hart, said in a statement. “Failure to do so is not in the best interest of our residents.”

Chemistry council predicts higher water bills

In a detailed response to the draft recommendation last year, the chemistry council predicted that New Jersey residents would be faced with higher water bills because of the costs that utilities will incur for installing technology to comply with the health limit if it is finally implemented.

Keith Cooper, the institute’s chairman and a Rutgers University toxicologist, rejected suggestions that the panel had not made an exhaustive examination of existing research on the chemical. “We did go back in and look at the literature for comparison, and those comments are expanded on in the recommendation,” he said.

The recommendation won high praise from environmentalists at the online meeting, which was attended by about 50 people. “There are multiple pathways of exposure for the public from 1,4-dioxane,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group. “That includes drinking water and, unbeknownst to people, through consumer products.”

She called on policymakers to take separate action to protect the public from consumer products containing the chemical but said the water quality institute was fulfilling its duties under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act to recommend the protective measure.

Carluccio urged the DEP to quickly propose a new rule that adopts the recommended standard. She and other activists previously accused the department of dragging its feet on the panel’s earlier recommendations for tough health limits on PFAS — toxic substances also known as “forever chemicals” — three of which are now regulated in New Jersey’s drinking water.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the panel had done “meticulous research” to back up its recommendation. In light of research by the institute showing that 17% of the state’s public water systems contained the chemical at above the recommended health limit, there is a clear threat to public health if the state does not implement the standard, he said.

“We are essentially playing a toxic Russian roulette on how much 1,4-dioxane is impacting our public health,” he said.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight