Emerging, and invisible, contaminants of concern being found in southern New England drinking-water supplies
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
The ongoing tragedy of lead-tainted water having been shamelessly foisted down the throats of the Flint, Mich., population calls, rightly, into question the well-being of the country’s drinking-water supply.
Here in southern New England, our waters, from reservoirs to trout streams to popular beaches, are constantly stressed. As the region’s population grows and the climate changes, keeping water supplies suitable for consumption, cooking, bathing, fishing and swimming will require significant investments and vigilant management.
Rhode Island, for one, has been slow to address this growing challenge. Last fall, The Associated Press (AP) reported that Rhode Island was the state farthest off track from meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of spending money in a key drinking-water program by this year’s deadline.
At the time of its reporting, in late September, the AP noted that the Ocean State had more than $16 million sitting unspent in its Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund — 9.4 percent of what it has been allocated — putting Rhode Island above the national average of 6.2 percent.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it would take Rhode Island years to spend the leftover cash in the federal assistance fund for water infrastructure improvements. Rhode Island spends the least of all states, according to the federal agency.
June Swallow, chief of the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water Quality, recently told ecoRI News that the delay has to do with timing and bond issues, and not with any difficulty in spending the money.
“Our infrastructure is old, and it needs to be replaced and repaired,” Swallow said. “It’s a threat to our drinking water, but it’s also a very expensive problem to fix. Do you raise rates or not?”
In Providence, for example, many of the water mains in the Providence Water distribution system are more than a century old. The system’s nearly 1,000 miles of water mains are made of cast iron, ductile iron, concrete, steel or asbestos cement.
Nationwide, it’s expected to cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain existing drinking-water infrastructure, according to last year’s AP report. Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure, and expanding drinking-water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion.
Despite that need, about $1 billion is sitting unspent in loan accounts across the country, largely because of project delays and poor management, the AP review found.
Any substance that goes down a drain, runs off a landscape or is buried underground, could potentially end up polluting southern New England’s drinking-water sources, and ponds, rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Human activities, land uses, derelict properties, crumbling and outdated infrastructure, and climate change pose individual and combined threats to the region’s waters.
These potential harms come in all shapes and sizes: farming practices; lawn fertilization; pet waste; logging; industrial and manufacturing facilities; Superfund sites; brownfields; landfills; leaking underground fuel storage tanks; failing septic systems; cesspools; deteriorating sewer mains; wastewater treatment plant discharges; saltwater intrusion; stormwater runoff; and lead water pipes.
Contaminants that have been identified in the drinking-water supplies of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island include: agricultural pollutants from pesticides and fertilizer, such as nitrate and atrazine; industrial pollutants such as lead, mercury, radium-226 and strontium-90; and water-treatment byproducts such as total trihalomethanes, chloroform, cadmium and asbestos.
Drinking water can reasonably be expected to contain at least trace amounts of some contaminants. Bottled water, which sits in plastic that leaches chemicals, isn’t immune to this contamination, especially considering tap water is more thoroughly tested.
The presence of contaminants, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate a health risk, but there is a swelling tide of threats to our drinking water.
Get the lead out
Rhode Island has one of the country’s more serious lead problems. In 2010, Environmental Health Perspectives reported that the state had three times the U.S. average number of children with blood lead levels above the “level of concern” at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends intervention.
Much of Rhode Island’s lead poisoning is tied to the ingestion of lead-contaminated paint chips, dust and soil, but the state’s lead service lines, most notably in Providence, play a role.
“I’ve been told lead in water is about 20 percent of the problem when it comes to lead poisoning in Providence,” Don Pryor, a visiting lecturer at Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies, recently told ecoRI News. “Landlords are required to address lead paint ... they should be required to address lead in water.”
Pryor, a Providence resident who has worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and for the White House Science Office, noted that statewide kindergarten children with a history of blood lead level screening greater than 5 per deciliter has dropped from 81 percent in 1998 to 13 percent.
“Childhood lead poisoning has gone way down, but it’s still 13 percent,” he said. “That’s dramatic, and it’s not reversible.”
Under the EPA’s 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, municipal water utilities must sample a small number of homes at high risk for elevated lead levels, such as those known to have lead plumbing components. Since the inception of that federal law 25 years ago, Providence’s drinking water has routinely been near or above the EPA’s lead action level of 15 parts per billion.
The law requires that samples be “first-flush” water that has stood in pipes for a minimum of six hours. This scenario represents high but routine exposures to lead in tap water, because the longer corrosive water sits in contact with lead parts, the more lead leaches out.
Rhode Island, like most of New England, also has soft, naturally corrosive water and, with some of the oldest housing stock in the United States, tens of thousands of lead service lines are still in use. For instance, there are about 20,000 lead service lines still in existence in the Providence Water system.
Swallow said lead poisoning is an important public health problem, but she also noted that the state’s blood lead levels are decreasing.
“Lead in the water isn’t the primary cause of lead poisoning in Rhode Island, but it does remain a concern,” she said. “All of the state’s lead service lines need to come out.”
It’s not an easy fix, especially when there is no plan in place to do so, as Pryor alleged is the case in Rhode Island. “In Providence they’ve been replacing pipes that are nowhere near where childhood lead exposure seems to be,” he said. “They’re responding to complaints about discolored water. There ought to be a plan that makes removing lead pipes a clear priority.”
Water utilities are responsible for lead service lines not on private property. Homeowners and businesses own those lines. They are expensive to replace; a few thousand dollars for a residential replacement. There’s also debate about the benefits of partial lead service replacement, such as when a utility replaces its section but a homeowner can’t afford to replace the rest.
Pryor said there should be subsidies available or some kind of sliding scale that would offer financial support to homeowners looking to replace outdated lead service pipes.
Unlike most water contaminants, lead gets into water after it leaves a treatment plant. This contamination often is the result of water-treatment changes that are meant to improve water quality, but that end up altering water chemistry, destabilizing lead-bearing mineral scales that coat service lines, and corroding lead faucets, fixtures, pipes and solder.
Providence Water, on its website, notes that drinking water has been implicated as a source of lead consumption. Lead enters the drinking-water supply predominately by leaching from a home’s interior plumbing lines and/or lead service line, according to the utility.
An older home’s interior plumbing pipes are often made of copper, connected with lead/tin solder. In 1987, the use of lead/tin solder for connecting and repairing drinking-water plumbing pipes was banned. Lead solder, however, is still present in the water lines of many homes built prior to 1987. And in much of New England, the water line that connects the large water main in the street to the home's water meter is, in many cases, made of lead.
The tragedy in Flint was triggered when that city’s water supply was changed to a source with significantly different water-chemistry characteristics. The money-saving move was done without the necessary corresponding measures to deal with the corrosion control of the piping system. The situation was exacerbated by negligent government.
In fact, water authorities across the United States are systematically distorting water tests to downplay the amount of lead in samples, according to a Jan. 22 story in The Guardian.
Documents reviewed by the newspaper claim to show that water boards in cities, such as Detroit and Philadelphia, and in the state of Rhode Island have distorted tests by using methods deemed misleading, but not illegal, by the EPA. The documents show that several cities have advised the use of questionable methods when conducting official tests for lead content, including encouraging testers to run taps for several minutes to flush out lead from the pipes.
Rhode Island Department of Health documents asked residents to run their water “until cold” before sampling, according to The Guardian story.
In a Jan. 29 e-mail to ecoRI News, a Rhode Island Department of Health spokesman said the statements about lead testing and the department in The Guardian story are inaccurate.
“Lead testing at the Rhode Island Department of Health has expert leadership and years of commitment to eliminating lead exposure, while following the national Safe Drinking Water Act,” wrote Joseph Wendelken, the department’s acting public information officer. “In Rhode Island, we investigate for exposure to lead in drinking water whenever a healthcare provider determines that a child has an elevated blood lead level. In addition, we look for lead in paint, dust, and soil. We then resample for lead in drinking water on follow-up assessments. This approach has been very successful in decreasing lead exposure for Rhode Island children in the last 10 years.”
The EPA has determined that the residential lead tap sampling guidance provided by the Rhode Island Department of Health is consistent with long-standing sampling guidance, according to an agency spokesman.
Chemically unbalanced H2O
Contaminants of emerging concern, such as pharmaceuticals and consumer product chemicals, are increasingly detected in U.S. rivers, streams and drinking-water supplies, but no regulations and few voluntary guidelines have been developed.
The EPA does have a Contaminant Candidate List, a list of drinking-water contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems but aren’t currently subject to the agency’s drinking-water regulations.
A recent study by the Newton, Mass.-based Silent Spring Institute found that pollutants from household wastewater can make their way into private wells, and that backyard septic systems are likely to blame. The findings reinforce growing concerns about the health risks posed by unregulated chemicals in drinking water, according to study co-author Laurel Schaider.
In tests of water samples from private wells on Cape Cod, Silent Spring Institute researchers found 27 unregulated contaminants, including a dozen different pharmaceuticals, a variety of chemicals used in non-stick coatings, flame retardants and an artificial sweetener.
About 44 million U.S. residents get their drinking water from private wells, including about 20 percent of New England’s population. Since private wells tend to be shallower than public wells and are less frequently monitored, they also are more susceptible to contamination from local land-use activities.
On Cape Cod, that susceptibility is more profound, because the popular peninsula features sandy soils and a shallow aquifer with little rock or boundary layers.
Private well contamination, however, isn’t limited to Cape Cod. It’s is an ongoing public health issue in many parts of the country, according to the Silent Spring Institute.
Homes that rely on private wells also tend to have their own septic systems. About 25 percent of all U.S. households use a septic system for processing wastewater. In previous research on Cape Cod, Silent Spring Institute researchers discovered that hormone-disrupting chemicals and pharmaceuticals from septic systems can leach into groundwater and enter nearby waterways.
“The next question was whether contaminants in household wastewater, once they enter the groundwater, make their way into drinking-water supplies.” Schaider said.
To answer that question, Schaider and her colleagues sampled water from 20 private wells on Cape Cod and tested the samples for 117 different contaminants. About 70 percent of the wells contained perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) — a class of fluorinated chemicals. PFASs are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been associated with cancer and developmental disorders. They are routinely found in consumer products such as pizza boxes, non-stick pans, waterproof clothing and stain-resistant carpets.
The researchers also found pharmaceuticals in two-thirds of the wells tested. Sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections, and carbamazepine, a drug used to treat seizures, nerve pain and bipolar disorder, were among the most common pharmaceuticals detected. Twenty-five percent of the wells contained flame-retardant chemicals.
Schaider and her colleagues also looked at nitrate levels in each well and found that wells with higher nitrate concentrations also had more contaminants, as well as higher concentrations of contaminants. All 20 wells were in areas served by septic systems, and further analysis showed that the contaminants most likely came from these backyard wastewater treatment systems.
“This is the first study to show septic systems as sources of PFASs in drinking water from private wells,” Schaider said. “Given that 85 percent of residents on the Cape rely on septic systems, the risk of contaminated water is a real health concern.”
The EPA regulates nitrate in drinking water — the current safe limit for nitrate in drinking water is 10 parts per million — but there are no health standards for the kinds of household pollutants found in the Silent Spring Institute study. The concentrations of the pharmaceuticals the researchers detected were orders of magnitude lower than those found in a therapeutic dose.
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing to worry about,” Schaider said. “Drugs are intended for specific uses and can have side effects. And we don’t give certain medications to pregnant women or children because the developing body is very sensitive.”
So how well do septic systems fare at removing chemicals such as pharmaceuticals, consumer products and flame retardants? It depends.
Silent Spring Institute researchers found that septic systems do well at removing some chemicals. For example, more than 99 percent of acetaminophen — commonly sold as Tylenol — and caffeine are removed. However, other emerging contaminants were handled less efficiently, according to the institute’s various Cape Cod studies.
On the whole, less than half of the anticonvulsant drug carbamazepine, the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole and a flame retardant, TCEP, were removed by septic systems. Systems that are failing because of age or lack of maintenance may remove fewer chemicals.
“More awareness is needed,” Schaider said. “The status quo isn’t working. Septic systems aren’t good at protecting water quality ... basic systems don’t do a good job removing nitrogen. We need a new approach and new technologies. There’s a need for more information.”
Silent Spring Institute research also has found that upgrading septic systems to sewers may not directly address emerging contaminants. Treated water from septic system and sewer processing plants contained similar levels of these chemicals, and the chlorination process used to disinfect sewage causes additional harmful chemicals to form. Sewers also move large amounts of polluted water around.
This research raises a major question, which will likely be left for future generations to answer, through science and sickness: What are the health effects from exposure to accumulating mixtures of different chemicals in drinking water?
Currently, there are no real answers, but emerging research shows that pharmaceuticals and hazardous chemical compounds common in industrial processes and personal-care products are getting around.
University of Rhode Island professor Rainer Lohmann, who has a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry, has detected triclosans, antibacterial agents found in many personal-care products and which have been identified as posing risks to humans and the environment; alkylphenols, widely used as detergents and known to disrupt the reproductive system; and PBDEs, industrial products used as flame retardants on a wide variety of consumer products, in the Narragansett Bay watershed.
“By themselves, none of these results makes me think that we shouldn’t be swimming in the bay or eating fish caught there,” he told ecoRI News in 2011. “But we only tested for three compounds that might be of concern, and we know there are hundreds more out there. The totality of all those compounds together is what may be worrisome.”
Lohmann, who studies chemical pollutants in the marine environment, has found “legacy compounds” in ocean basins from the Arctic to Antarctica. “There are thousands of chemical compounds that are used by industry for all sorts of purposes, and it turns out that they aren’t well regulated at all,” he told ecoRI News in 2013.
Connecticut Water, for one, believes the potential threat is negligible. The public utility, which provides water to about 300,000 people in 56 municipalities, says the issue of pharmaceuticals in public drinking water is a minimal concern, at least in Connecticut, because of the state’s “unique laws” that prohibit waste discharges into public drinking-water sources or their tributaries.
About 30 percent of Connecticut’s population, however, is served by septic systems and cesspools, which, as Silent Spring Institute research has found, aren’t very good at removing contaminants of emerging concern.
Connecticut’s unique laws also apply to Rhode Island. In fact, the Nutmeg State and Ocean State are the only states with such regulations, according to Swallow, of the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“Our risk is lower than other states that allow treated wastewater to be pumped into rivers and lakes that are also used as drinking-water sources,” she said.
Under Massachusetts regulations, the direct discharge of wastewater into a river, stream or other tributary used as a source of drinking water is prohibited. Wastewater that is highly treated in a wastewater treatment facility is allowed to be discharged to a water source and testing of that discharge is required by the local treatment authority, with the results made available to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Fifteen years ago, the water supply in the village of Pascoag, in the town of Burrillville, R.I., was contaminated by the now-banned gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), a petroleum byproduct that replaced lead in gasoline as an “anti-knocking agent.” The petrochemical has been shown to cause cancer in rodents. It has been banned in 24 states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island.
A spill at the Main Street Mobil — a monitoring well closest to the gas station was found to have 7 inches of standing gasoline — contaminated a water supply, and forced the Pascoag Utility District into an agreement with the neighboring village of Harrisville to buy drinking water.
Eighteen years earlier, in 1983, national attention descended on the rural village of Wyoming in the town of Richmond, R.I., as leaking tanks from another Mobil gas station were polluting home drinking water in the Canob Park neighborhood.
The problems in Canob Park began in 1969 and still weren’t resolved after a “60 Minutes” report aired 14 years later. The national publicity, however, did increase awareness about the risks of leaking underground gas tanks, which led to Congress passing new regulations and the creation of an EPA program.
Despite the reactionary laws and programs implemented in the mid-1980s, recent studies have identified contamination of private wells in New England from MTBE and radon, according to the EPA.
The U.S. chemical industry manufactures hundreds of new chemicals annually. The industry’s 8,000 or so companies produce some 80,000 products. These largely invisible creations are added to the growing market of concoctions that we use to freshen our breath, whiten our teeth, condition our hair, shine our cars and make our clothes wrinkle-free.
Despite a substantial history of public-health tragedies caused by unabated chemical use — lead paint, leaded gasoline, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), to name just a handful — most of the industry’s new chemicals hit the market with no testing. Federal law is based on the assumption that a chemical is safe until proven harmful. But we have no idea how these tens of thousands of chemicals are interacting with each other in various environments, including in our drinking-water sources.
We’re always playing catch-up.
In the late 1960s, more than 1,000 miles of New England water pipes were sprayed with a now-known neurotoxin, in response to complaints that water smelled and tasted funny, according to a 2014 story in The Washington Post.
More than half the pipes that were sprayed are in Massachusetts, mostly on Cape Cod. The poison, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), still widely used in dry cleaning, wasn’t discovered in the water supply until 1979. A study published in June 2014 found that the exposure to this poison is linked to increased risk for stillbirths and other pregnancy complications.
A 2012 study concluded there are probable links between the industrial chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, a highly toxic, manmade chemical once used to make Teflon, and high cholesterol, testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and ulcerative colitis.
Since 2013, an EPA testing program has found perfluorooctanoic acid in 94 public water systems in 27 states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The four public water supplies in southern New England that have tested positive for the toxic chemical provide drinking water to about 126,000 people.
A water test performed in March 2014 at the Scituate Reservoir — the drinking-water supply for 60 percent of Rhode Islanders — revealed trace amounts of a synthetic steroid found in performance-enhancing drugs. The synthetic hormone androstenedione is used in bodybuilding supplements and dietary pills.
Both the EPA and the Rhode Island Department of Health noted that the positive test was barely at the detection level and didn’t warrant an immediate health concern.
A month later, in April 2014, the city of East Providence sent out a notice altering residents that the public water system had levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) above drinking-water standards. The one-page notice said TTHMs are a group of volatile organic compounds, such as bromoform, bromodichloromethane, chloroform and dibromochloromethane, that form with time when the natural organics in water react with chlorine as it breaks down.
It was a violation of federal and state drinking-water standards, but it wasn’t considered an emergency, and the city’s tap water was deemed safe to drink.
Fluorinated chemicals used in firefighting foam have been found in drinking-water wells near a firefighting training academy in Hyannis, Mass. It’s already known that endocrine disruptors are negatively impacting fish.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health has received numerous reports in recent years of contamination from pesticides and heavy metals — such as arsenic, in levels more than twice the EPA’s recommended limit of 0.01 milligrams per liter, and uranium — in residential drinking water across the state, according to a 2013 story by the Stamford Advocate.
But the state has done little research on the source or location of well-water contaminants such as arsenic, and requires the testing of private drinking water only once, when a new well is installed, according to the story.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health sets health-based levels for many chemicals in private well water. Action levels are used to decide when water treatment is needed. The action levels for dieldrin is 0.03 micrograms parts per billion; chlordane is 0.3 ppb. If a person is exposed to one of these pesticides in their drinking water at a concentration below the action level, the department considers the health risk from that exposure to be insignificant.
At concentrations above the action level, the department wrote: “Exposure over many years can increase a person’s risk of health effects. For this reason, it is important to limit your exposure to drinking water when it exceeds an action level. It is also important to know that an increased health risk does not necessarily mean that a health effect will occur.”
Stamford officials initially thought a landfill was the source, but it’s now believed the contamination is linked to historic pesticide use.
“It’s difficult to understand what a lifelong exposure to a growing mixture of chemicals might do to human health,” Silent Spring Institute’s Schaider said. “There’s some many unknowns, and so many chemicals used in everyday life.”
And drinking water is just one way our bodies are being exposed to a rising tide of chemicals.
Rush of polluted water
As woodlands and other natural areas in southern New England are developed, drinking-water sources must be better protected from the region’s ever-increasing river of polluted runoff from non-point sources, such as fertilized fields and lawns, parking lots, roads and rooftops. Protective buffering, however, isn’t keeping pace with development.
Rivers of stormwater, combined sewer overflow discharges and failing septic systems apply constant pressure on southern New England’s waters.
In September 2013, a boil-water order was issued to 25,000 customers of the Kent County Water Authority, after tests found E. coli bacteria contamination in a storage tank. Customers were told they should boil their water before drinking, cooking with it or brushing their teeth.
E. coli comes from human and animal feces, and during heavy rains and snow melts it can enter streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs and wells that are used as sources of drinking water.
These drinking-water supplies can become contaminated if they aren’t adequately treated, which usually means with chlorine. The chemical is used to prevent waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery.
Protection of these vital waters is further complicated by the region’s elaborate water-supply system, which involves thousands of private and public water utilities, agencies in three states, and hundreds of municipal governments.
Adding to this complex system is the fact many of southern New England’s reservoirs and their watersheds are in several municipalities, outside the city or town served by a particular water system, or a system’s sources and/or watersheds are in another state, with different development regulations.
Protecting drinking-water sources is difficult, and expensive, and it largely depends on the preservation of watersheds and aquifer lands. This is particularly evident in Rhode Island and Connecticut, two of the most densely populated states, and in eastern Massachusetts, where population growth and development threaten lands that act as natural filters for many water supplies.
For instance, about half of Connecticut’s watershed lands, about a quarter of a million acres, are without permanent protection and potentially susceptible to development, according to a 2003 study titled “Protecting Land to Safeguard Connecticut’s Drinking Water.”
The ponds that supply the Newport Water System and its nearly 15,000 service connections with drinking water are impaired and don’t meet the federal requirements of the Clean Water Act. The water coming out of customers’ taps is safe to drink, but the raw, untreated water coming from the system’s nine reservoirs is polluted by elevated levels of phosphorus and nitrogen.
The sources of the ponds’ high levels of pollutants are varied, but are typically linked to stormwater runoff, pet waste left on the ground, geese waste, and agricultural and golf course fertilizers. Development reduces raw water quality and places increasing pressure on water treatment systems.
Pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, produce excessive algae, which can cause a variety of problems to water supplies, including taste and odor, the creation of blue-green algae and the formation of disinfection byproducts, like what East Providence experienced two years ago.
Slow the flow
To stop harmful chemicals from getting into the environment, Silent Spring Institute’s Schaider advises people to avoid flushing unused medications down the drain or toilet, to reduce their use of products containing toxic chemicals, and to maintain their septic systems. Also, don’t dispose of household products that contain chemicals, such as paint, solvents, antifreeze and used motor oil, down storm drains.
She noted that moving septic systems further away from private wells and limiting development near wells could also help protect drinking water from contamination.
The Silent Spring Institute has suggested that state and local officials could better protect drinking water and public health by restricting septic systems from discharging into areas that supply local drinking-water wells. Officials also should make plans to divert wastewater from sewered areas away from zones that supply drinking water.
To help lessen the impact of contaminated stormwater: use natural vegetation and native soil to filter and manage runoff in ways similar to what nature designed; install rain barrels to repurpose runoff from roofs; position rain gardens to catch rainwater; find ways to divert water coming off gutters onto lawns, gravel and permeable surfaces, rather than down driveways and onto streets; and replace concrete and asphalt with wood mulch, gravel or pavers, to allow rainwater to soak into the ground.
Schaider also said it’s important for people to know where their water comes from and what pollution sources are in the area.
Swallow, of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said it’s important to maintain source protection. “We take our water supply for granted,” she said. “We need to help people understand there are needs we have to meet to protect our sources of water."
ecoRI News staffer Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.