Synthetic chemicals detected in private wells near Brookhaven National Lab

Lab tests taking place at the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA). SCWA scientists test new technology for filtering groundwater.

By Noor Lone and Sara Ruberg

Synthetic chemicals, potentially carcinogenic, were found in private wells examined in Manorville and Yaphank, Brookhaven National Lab announced at a community advisory meeting on Feb. 13. This announcement came after the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (SCDHS) had tested 59 wells.

After a lab study conducted last year on groundwater near the Brookhaven-Calabro Airport concluded that PFOS contamination levels 400 times the proposed standard, sparking the continued tests in the area.

“PFOA was detected in 30 wells,” Jason Remien, Environmental Protection Division Manager at Brookhaven National Lab, said, “Three of those houses had PFOA concentrations above the proposed drinking water standards of 10 parts per trillion (ppt).”

Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are synthetic compounds that are difficult to break down once they are in the environment or the human body. High levels of 1,4-Dioxane, a chemical recently banned in consumer products in New York, were also found in the groundwater tested near the airport.

PFOS was detected in six wells, all less than the proposed standard. Eight wells had detections of 1,4-Dioxane, also below its proposed one part per billion (ppb).

“1,4-dioxane does stay in the body for some period of time, but it doesn’t stay in the body as long as PFOA, PFOS chemicals do,” Dr. Sarah Meyland, a water specialist and associate professor at New York Institute Technology said. 

PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-Dioxane are all suspected human carcinogens, Meyland said. They could cause cancer, thyroid dysfunctions and other potential health complications if ingested at high levels, according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health advisory.

Water quality isn’t a problem isolated to the Brookhaven area–Long Island has the highest concentrations of these harmful chemicals in New York and the United States, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It is partially due to the chemicals in consumer products getting into the water, but mostly is caused by industrial plants that used the chemicals at high levels over long periods of time.

1,4-Dioxane was originally used as an industrial solvent stabilizer found in paints, varnishes, degreasers, and inks,” Maureen Murphy, Executive Programs Manager at Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), said in an email. “While it has since been phased out of some of these applications, its legacy of pollution continues to plague our water supplies. Adding to the problem, today it can be found in many everyday products such as shampoo, body wash, laundry detergent, and baby products.”

The primary way of removing 1,4-Dioxane, PFOA and PFOS is Advanced Oxidation Processes, or AOP, a process that many water suppliers on Long Island are just beginning to regulate and develop in order to combat the groundwater contamination. Most Long Island water suppliers have not used AOP, because they are not cost effective and only target certain contaminants, according to Tim McGuire, a senior project engineer at H2M, a consulting and design firm of architects and engineers that has teamed up with water suppliers.

“The whole process of providing treatment on a well and the water supply has really been challenged with this problem,” McGuire said. “We’re trying to shrink something that takes three to five years down into one to three years.”

The Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA) is the first water supplier in New York State to use these systems and have been piloting all possible types of AOP for the past two years in Islip. The combined cost of 56 new AOP systems and 20 new granular activated carbon systems is $177 million.

“Unfortunately, it comes from our customer base, so we’ve instituted a new charge on people’s bills,” Seth Wallach, Community Outreach Coordinator of SCWA said, “Every quarter, they’ll have a $20 charge on their bill.”

National enforceable standards do not exist for PFOS, PFOA and 1,4-Dioxane in groundwater. Most of the United States does not deal with the problem as intensely as Long Island. 

Proposed maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, for these chemicals in New York are anticipated to be implemented this year. If finalized, New York would be the first to enforce an MCL for 1,4-Dioxane.

Brookhaven National Lab will continue to test 50 more properties, including public water hookups and private wells.

About Noor Lone 6 Articles
Noor Lone is a senior journalism major with a minor in coastal environmental studies at Stony Brook University. She is apart of on-campus news organizations like the university’s radio station and video production club. She’s also apart of the university’s Honors College.