Photo credit: Dillon Wanner

‘Likely human carcinogen’ found in the supply of New Jersey’s largest water utility company

4 mins read

A glass per day may not be keeping the doctor away for consumers of water from the Delaware River.

The New Jersey American Water company is the largest water utility in the Garden state, mainly servicing water and wastewater to more than two million people throughout 17 counties including Camden and Gloucester. Yet, the plant found their source of water was contaminated with a synthetic byproduct of plastic manufacturing, 1,4-Dioxane, a colorless liquid that can cause harm to the eyes, skin, lungs, liver, and kidneys. While the federal government has found the chemical to be a likely human carcinogen, or cancer causing agent; presently, no sole polluter has been found liable.

The highly mobile substance can seep through soil into groundwater, or enter into surface water drinking water supplies. Seemingly, the problem stemmed from some sort of chemical spill into the Delaware river. Therefore, the company contacted the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) in February 2020. Subsequent to their scientific results, DRBC informed American Water, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), as well as the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD).

While traces of the chemical have previously been found in water supplies, the findings reported high levels in a portion of the Delaware water gap, near American Water’s South Jersey treatment plant. The Delaware water gap is where the Delaware River cuts through the Appalachian Mountains, bordering both NJ and Pennsylvania. 

To date, the river provides drinking water to over 13 million along the East Coast—including New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Most alarming, a loophole in regulations allows the dumping of the hazardous chemical into its waters. More concerning, there are no federal limits for how much 1,4-Dioxane drinking water can contain. Nor has the FDA independently conducted a hazard identification and risk assessment

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NYC and Hoboken skyline from Jersey City. Photo credit: Michael Berkowitz on Unsplash

In a 2021 letter to New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute chairman Dr. Keith Cooper, from NJDEP’s new commissioner, Shawn M. LaTourette, claimed the state would propose a health-based maximum contaminant level (MCL) limit of .33 parts per billion in 2022 MCL rulemaking meetings. 

“To further protect public health and the environment, DEP will consider 1,4-dioxane as a priority contaminant for its next MCL rulemaking, which will commence in the new year,” LaTourette expressed. 

She further wrote that “the public can take comfort that DEP will continue its proactive approach when becoming aware of 1,4-dioxane in drinking water or source water at levels above the Institute’s recommended health-based MCL of 0.33 ug/L.” Added to the letter, Commissioner 

LaTourette added that appropriate steps must be taken in order “reduce exposure, and inform customers” as the “given the time required to promulgate formal regulations.” As a result, DEP says it will “also engage directly with water systems and recommend that those known or suspected to have elevated levels of 1,4-dioxane conduct monitoring.” 

Worse still, some 2020 samples found nearly 10 times said threshold amount in the river. 

Something in the water ain’t clean

According to the EPA, short-term inhalation to high levels of the solvent stabilizer has caused vertigo and irritation, even anorexia. Stomach pains and even death were among other symptoms among exposed workers. In chronic exposure observations, kidney and liver damage showed up in animals that drank the contaminated water. Tumors were also found.

The additional danger of the substance–it is miscible in water, meaning it can be mixed with H2O without any discernible difference in appearance. Basically, it can be consumed without much speculation. Furthermore, it can explode as it becomes unstable at high temperatures and pressures, especially with prolonged exposure to light or air. It is also likely to exist at sites contaminated with certain chlorinated solvents. 

Used for the first time in Jersey City, a port metropolis of The Garden State, chlorine was introduced as a major water disinfectant in 1908. In the coming decades, it gained mainstream prominence and by 1995 about 64 percent of all American community water systems utilized it. Although alternatives like peracetic acid are gaining traction, chlorine remains the most commonly used substance to treat sewage. Today, it is utilized at over 10,000 of the 16,000 U.S. plants, and their 45 billion liters of sewage daily. 

Yet, with the good comes the bad.

Chlorine-use creates disinfection byproducts that harm the environment including aquatic ecosystems, as well as negatively impact human health. Resultantly, stricter regulations have been placed. Hence, increasing costs for water treatment, and possibly creating greater issues in strides to maintain arguably clean water for customers.

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When it comes to environmental matters, accountability is best served green as the NJDEP has been hitting major polluters where it matters most– their pockets. No one, including the Feds, are safe from reproach.

“As we said at the outset of the Murphy Administration, the days of free passes and soft landings for polluters in New Jersey are over,” asserted NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal. “The corporations we’re suing knew full well the potential harms they were inflicting on our environment, but chose to forge ahead anyway. When companies disregard the laws meant to protect our environment, they can expect to pay.”

There have been a plethora of lawsuits and civilian outcry that has led to some strides, like that of Newark residents and advocacy groups fighting to highlight lead contamination in water systems through the city in 2018. Three years later, the Newark Education Workers (NEW) caucus and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) just settled with state officials, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the NJDEP. 

“NEW caucus and other residents stood up to fight for safe drinking water in Newark, securing an extraordinary victory for generations of kids who will live healthier, better lives because they won’t be drinking leaded tap water,” said Senior Strategic Director for Health at the NRDC, Erik D. Olson in a press release. “Newark’s aggressive lead service line replacement program, at no direct cost to residents, could serve as a model for the nation once it is completed.” 

However, the motions have not been enough to deter further dumping. Just last month, AdvanSix was responsible for an estimated 2,000 gallon phenol spill in Philadelphia. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of the toxic chemical in the river, the plant is located off I-95 near a channel that leads to the Delaware River.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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