Act Now to Protect NY's Tap Water From Dangerous Chemicals

Infants are especially vulnerable to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water

Márcio Cabral de Moura/flickr

New York State seems reluctant to ban chemicals linked to serious health problems, including cancer.

The Department of Health is ready pass regulations that allow chemical concentration levels in drinking water five times higher than scientists deem safe. Even after these regulations—which would still be a great improvement on the status quo of zero regulationsare passed, the state would allow water suppliers to delay compliance for three years.

Three years may not seem like a long time—but it is for a woman like me who is pregnant.  So until safe regulation of these chemicals is in place, I have independently started to filter my tap water. 

Three years may not seem like a long time—but it is for a woman like me who is pregnant.  

Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are two toxic chemicals that have been found in drinking water from Long Island to Upstate New York, including but not limited to Hoosick Falls, Newburgh, Hampton Bays. 

These chemicals are linked to serious health effects — cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm. Some of these grave health issues appear after extremely low levels of exposure.  

And it’s not only New York—both chemicals have been found in tap water of 42 other states.

This is because they were widely used in products like firefighting foam, nonstick cookware (Teflon), stain-resistant carpets and fabric (Scotchgard and Stainmaster), paper and cardboard food packaging (fast food wrappers), clothing (Gore-Tex), toothpaste, shampoos, cosmetics, polishes and waxes. The list goes on. 

In pregnant women, they’ve been found to cause high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia.  And in fetuses, exposure to these chemicals before birth can result in decreased birthweight, decreased immune responses, and hormonal effects later in life, leading to issues like delayed breast development, shorter penis length, and lower sperm count.

Because we share the same blood, my fetus, before even being born, has the same PFOA and PFOS levels as I do—a troubling thought, especially since it takes decades for these chemicals to naturally leave the body. 

Unfortunately, New York’s proposed regulations—proposing to limit PFOA and PFOS levels to 10 parts per trillion each—still leave room for the presence of PFOA and PFOS in our drinking water, and leave us and our children vulnerable to long-term health problems.  The science is there—we should limit concentrations of PFOA and PFOS at the lowest level we can detect these contaminants—at 2 parts per trillion total. 

New York’s proposed regulations still leave room for the presence of PFOA and PFOS in our drinking water.

Moreover, the proposed regulations set separate standards for PFOA and PFOS—when in reality, the concentration of these dangerous chemicals should be measured together.  It is the combined concentration of PFOA and PFOS that is most relevant to predicting the effects of these contaminants on our health, so we should be limiting the combined concentration of these chemicals in our water.

And once finalized, New York wants to let water suppliers defer compliance for up to three years—so even if regulations were finalized today, my child would be more than two years old before New York State’s tap water would be safe for either her or me to drink. 

Even if regulations were finalized today, my child would be more than two years old before New York State’s tap water would be safe for either her or me to drink.

Luckily, we have the technology to filter these dangerous contaminants out of our water now. For example, activated carbon filters are already widely used to treat PFOA and PFOS contamination.  In Petersburgh, this treatment was installed in 2017 and removed PFOA and PFOS from the town’s water supply in a matter of months.

I’ve installed an activated carbon filter at my home to keep my water safe—but that’s not an affordable option for many of the hundreds of thousands of pregnant women currently living in New York and across the country.  And why are residents forced to pay so that companies can save money and continue endangering New Yorkers’ health? 

Please urge New York to step up and set safe standards for our drinking water.

The New York State Department of Health is accepting comments on these proposed regulations until March 9—Act now to urge New York to step up and set safe standards for our drinking water, and to make water suppliers comply as soon as possible.

About the Authors

Kimberly Ong

Senior Attorney, NY Regional, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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