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Water treatment

Glens Falls City Engineer Steve Gurzler stands in front of the water quality monitoring station June 1, 2016 as he gives a tour of the water treatment plant in Queensbury. 

A report by the New York Public Interest Research Group released Tuesday shows the city of Glens Falls and the Queensbury Water District have detected a few contaminants in users’ drinking water that are monitored by the federal government but not yet regulated.

Every so often the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publishes a list of 30 “emerging contaminants” and requires systems serving more than 10,000 people to test for them.

“This monitoring provides a basis for future regulatory actions to protect public health,” according to the EPA’s website.

The report, “What’s in My Water? Emerging Contaminants in New York’s Drinking Water Systems,” identifies which systems detected levels of these unregulated pollutants. The data was collected between 2013 and 2015 across the state.

Chlorate, chromium-6, strontium and vanadium were found in the drinking water in both Queensbury and Glens Falls. Chromium was also detected in Glens Falls.

While the EPA doesn’t have regulatory measurements for these particular materials, it does have reference concentrations, none of which were exceeded in Glens Falls or Queensbury.

Chemical problems

Some of the information about how these pollutants affect human health are still being studied, but the EPA has some initial information.

  • Chlorate can get in drinking water through the disinfection process, as it is a byproduct of chlorine. Toxic doses, according to the EPA’s review of the chemical, can cause gastrointestinal issues and multiple kinds of blood disorders.
  • Chromium and chromium-6 can naturally occur in the environment, according to the EPA, but they can also be introduced by industrial activities. Chromium-6 may perhaps be best known as the heavy metal that Erin Brokovich discovered was poisoning residents of Hinkley, California. The levels found in Queensbury and Glens Falls are below the federal drinking water standard, but the EPA is reviewing whether that standard needs to be revised. Chromium-6 can cause skin problems. It has also been studied for its possible link to cancers.
  • Strontium can be naturally occurring, but the EPA states that it’s often used to cool water from nuclear reactors and other industrial sources. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “emissions from burning coal and oil increase stable strontium levels in air,” and it shows up as dust particles. It can mix with strontium found in water, which comes from rocks and sediment. The CDC adds that most levels humans are exposed to do not cause any adverse health effects, but children may have problems with bone growth if exposed to high levels, combined with a diet “low in calcium and protein.”
  • Vanadium is also naturally occurring but can be released from industrial sources. Ingesting it could cause nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps, according to the CDC.

Steve Gurzler, engineer for Glens Falls’ Water and Sewer Department, said Wednesday that just because a contaminant is detected doesn’t mean it’s a concern.

“We work hard to keep our water as clean as possible,” Gurzler said.

None of the EPA testing showed any items of concern that would require immediate action, he said.

Chris Harrington, water superintendent for Queensbury, could not be reached Wednesday.

Calling for more testing

Glens Falls and Queensbury are not the only systems in the state where emerging contaminants were detected. NYPIRG found 176 water systems where one or more of the contaminants were found.

No information is available for Washington County, because none of its he systems serve 10,000 or more people.

“New York state needs to stop kicking the can down the road and set stringent drinking water standards and test statewide for chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, 1,4-dioxane and more,” said Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the organization, in a news release

In addition to expanding testing statewide, NYPIRG has called on the Department of Health to require testing for private homes, create a statewide public database on drinking water and protect land around drinking water sources.

The Department of Health said in a statement that it will review NYPIRG’s report.

The Department of Health does not regulate private wells, nor does it regulate residents where surface water is pumped into the homes.

Gurzler said the EPA’s “emerging contaminants” rule is not about identifying every possible thing that’s in a water system, and the testing for some of these is expensive and could bankrupt a smaller water supply.

“This is not like in the movies where they can run a sample, and it’s got so much of so many different contaminants,” Gurzler said. “It doesn’t work that way. The samples have to be prepared in special ways, taken in special ways, and because a lot of these contaminants are measured in parts per billion or parts per trillion, they’re very, very small concentrations.”

Locally, the city doesn’t have the capability for testing many of these emerging contaminants, and Gurzler said those samples are sent to a certified lab.

The city is in the middle of sampling for another round of emerging contaminants published by the EPA, Gurzler added.

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Reporter Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (518) 742-3238 or gcraig@poststar.com. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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