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Editorial: Protect the water

New Yorkers might want to offer a qualified cheer after the state Department of Health, in a long overdue move, recommended new drinking water standards for three hazardous chemicals. Better, still, Washington is also moving on this.

The U.S. House of Representatives just passed several important amendments to be attached to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020. They would designate a class of chemicals called PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. The Senate has already approved a bill with similar language. Negotiators will get together to hammer out the final bill, and then send it to President Trump. He should sign it into law.

Congress should do even more on this subject, but there is a lot in the federal measure that will begin the work of monitoring and cleaning up contaminated areas on and around military bases that rely on firefighting foams made with the toxic chemicals.

What are PFAS?

“Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” are a group of man-made chemicals. They include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and many other chemicals. They can be found in a variety of industries around the globe, including the United States since the 1940s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These chemicals can show up in food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used the chemicals, or grown in soil or water contaminated with them. Other places they can show up are in commercial household products, workplace facilities or industries.

Perhaps most disturbing, they can appear in drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility, such as a military base, or in living organisms, including humans and the fish they eat.

Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States. Still most people would be shocked if they were tested for these chemicals, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group, the EPA and others.

NYPIRG has stated that the subgroup of chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS are known to endanger public health at low levels of exposure, leading to developmental harm to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, preeclampsia and kidney and testicular cancer.

Also hazardous is 1,4-dioxane, which can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver impairments. The EPA lists it as a known carcinogen.

Now, the state Health Department, for the first time in 20 years, has issued guidelines for PFOS, PFOA and 1,4-dioxane, and they are considered the strictest in the nation. The proposed limit for 1,4-dioxane of 1 part per billion would be the first such regulation in the nation and the chemicals known as PFOS and PFOA each would be limited to 10 parts per trillion.

NYPIRG, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other organizations have called for a combined maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS, if not other chemicals, to be set at 2 parts per trillion. NYPIRG is also recommending lower levels for 1,4-dioxane, at .3 parts per billion. Federally, the cancer risk assessment level for 1,4-dioxane is at .35 parts per billion.

It’s important that New York has acted on these water contaminants, but because water doesn’t respect state boundaries, Washington’s action is even more crucial. The health of Western New Yorker depends to an extent on water that comes out of the Midwest.

One of those federal amendments would require the Department of Defense eventually to end the use of firefighting foam made with PFAS. New York State lawmakers just passed a bill that will phase out the use of that foam over the next couple of years, although the governor’s signature is still required.

New York State has taken a first important step to protect its water, but it should go further, both for its own purposes and also to provide a strong example for Washington to follow.

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