VOCs – Their Threat to LI Drinking Water
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
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Recently I had the good fortune to interview Sarah J. Meyland, M.S., J.D., an expert in
groundwater protection, water resources management, and environmental law, and an
associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology. Professor Meyland highlighted multiple issues that affect the safety of Long Island’s drinking water – many of which Islanders (myself included) have been unaware. But the most common and unknown category of contaminants endangering our water are VOCs. In fact, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), adverse health effects from VOCs may cause:
Eye, nose, and throat irritation
Headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea
Damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system
Cancer in animals, including humans
Know Thy Enemy: In Home Products
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are a category of chemicals found in many everyday items around our homes. These chemical compounds – among them trihalomethanes (THMs), trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) -- are often used as solvents in consumer products and industrial activities. Once in groundwater VOCs can be persistent and resist degradation from bacteria. Products containing VOCs include:
Paint, paint strippers
Varnishes and finishes
Caulks and sealants
Flooring, carpet, pressed-wood products
Personal care products
Cleaners and disinfectants
Fuel oil, gasoline
Know Thy Enemy: In Superfund Sites
One of the most concerning ways VOCs can enter our water is through superfund sites,
abandoned locations contaminated by hazardous waste and designated by the EPA for
management and cleanup. Examples include landfills and areas that were once home to
industrial operations and aerospace manufacturing. According to the EPA, Long Island has more superfund sites (combined federal and state) than any other region of New York State. In fact, there are 256 chemically contaminated sites designated for cleanup on the island. Furthermore, 90 percent, or nearly 231 of these sites, have contaminated our groundwater. Among the Long Island towns with superfund sites:
Port Jefferson Station
How VOC-Contaminated Is LI Groundwater?
Really contaminated. According to a New York State hearing on water quality and
contamination, in 1999 fewer than 22 percent of approximately 400 public supply wells in Nassau County had detectable levels of VOCs. In 2016 about 50 percent of all drinking water wells were impacted by VOCs. Suffolk County levels have also increased over time. Trends for the most common VOCs were evaluated between 1987 and 2013 by the Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan. The total number of approximately 600 wells impacted by perchloroethylene doubled during that period, as well as the average concentrations of PCE in the most significant water-bearing areas on Long Island: the upper glacial and Magothy aquifers. Similarly, during that period, the total number of wells impacted by trichloroethylene more than doubled, with the average concentration of TCE in the same glacial and Magothy aquifer wells nearly tripling. In addition, 70 percent of community supply
wells are rated high or very high for VOC contamination.
Can we filter VOCs out of our water? Not significantly. According to Professor Meyland, most everyday countertop or faucet filters will not filter out VOCs. Under-the-sink filtration systems using granulated carbon or reverse osmosis can remove some VOCs. There are also “whole house” systems available, but these usually need professional installation and can be costly.
Who’s Minding the “Store”?
At this writing there is no single specific government agency with the responsibility of
overseeing and protecting the health of our aquifer system, nor is there ongoing testing of groundwater to detect VOCs in general by any regulatory agencies. Most contamination problems are detected after they happen. Professor Meyland warns that Long Island’s water “will never get better till we make water management changes.” To that end, she supports the formation of “a new agency on Long Island to manage the oversight/protection of our groundwater.” And while there is The Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection (LICAP), a bi-county organization formed in 2013 by unanimous vote in both legislatures to assess threats to our aquifer system and recommend measures to protect it, LICAP has no role in groundwater
management. Although helpful, this begs the question of how to create an islandwide
consistent effort rather than the current fragmented system.
What Can We Do?
As a future environmental scientist, I think it is safe to say that if we do not heed expert
warnings and advice, the security of our aquifer system is questionable at best. It is our
responsibility to act now so future generations can enjoy a safe and plentiful water supply. We can and should be aware of the products we use and how they contribute to the health of our aquifers. Probably even more important is the state of Long Island’s many superfund sites. Vigilance on treating these hazardous sites is critical.
What can we do? Read the labels! As individuals, we can say no to products containing VOCs, a number of which have been cited in this blog. Other examples can be found by searching online
for the “most common VOCs” and “are [VOCs] in your home?”
What else can we do? Find out whether there is a superfund site in your town! Visit the United States EPA website to search by state/county and the businesses that have created these sites.
Then contact your local legislators about the status of these toxic areas and the actions they are taking to clean them up. You can also search online for “environmental cleanup sites on Long Island.” Community and legislative action can make a major difference! At the time of this writing, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy have agreed to a $406 million cleanup of the toxic Bethpage plume.
Readers can watch Dylan D’Agate’s full interview with Professor Sarah Meyland at https://www.lisierraclub.org/youtube-videos.