It's 2003, do you know what's in your drinking water?

Friday, March 07, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

In a cutting-edge study of New Jersey drinking water, state scientists discovered that a vast array of chemicals are making it through the treatment process, albeit in tiny amounts.

Sophisticated tests of 19 water systems revealed that 17 of them yielded tap water with at least some of 154 previously undetected compounds, including fuel oils, prescription drugs and cancer-causing pesticides.

Each of the water systems was known to have been tainted by a nearby toxic-waste site. But even bottled water off New Jersey store shelves was not pristine. Five common brands, which researchers would not identify, contained at least 24 different chemical compounds.

The amounts were so small that it is very possible the chemical cocktails are not harming anyone, researchers concluded. But the array of contaminants was so varied, and the way they accumulate and interact in our bodies so poorly understood, that no one knows for sure.

"It's tough to make any sort of case that this is killing anybody," said Brian Buckley, lab director for the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, one of the state's partners in the study. "But the bottom line is, we do not know. We have very little toxicological data on any of this stuff."

The College of Public Health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey is conducting a separate study on the danger of the compounds, which is due out this summer.

Standard water tests detect volatile-organic chemicals, which are common, easily identified and fairly easily removed. In this study, scientists set out to find out which of the more stubborn semi-volatile chemicals, such as fragrances and fuel oils, and nonvolatile chemicals, such as dyes and inks, were slipping through the filters.

Their experimental and expensive testing techniques did not pick up any nonvolatile compounds, but they found dozens of semi-volatiles that standard tests cannot detect and government regulations do not address.

"Our drinking water standards don't account for everything. We just haven't started looking for this stuff before this project," said Marty Rosen, director of the Division of Science, Research and Technology for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "Before you can find out if there are any health risks, you have to find out what's out there, and that's what we're trying to do now."

Of the 606 public water systems in the state, 54 are known to draw from underground or surface water tainted with high levels of volatile chemicals. The scientists chose to focus on those, to get a worst-case scenario. They also tested a pristine well belonging to the Rosemont Water Department in Hunterdon County, and confirmed it was indeed the cleanest system.

The most common method of water purification -- aerating the water so chemicals evaporate -- was found not to work well on the sort of chemical compounds the scientists studied. An extra carbon-filter system measure used on tainted water sources was more effective, but still let some contaminants pass.

For example, atrazine, a common herbicide, was detected in seven samples from three different systems. Recent studies suggest atrazine is harmful to frogs, and may be linked to developmental defects in humans, said Eileen Murphy, the DEP scientist who headed the study.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) was the most frequently appearing compound. A widely used food preservative, it is ubiquitous in the environment, and was even found in laboratory control samples.

Over the four-year study, which ran from 1997 to 2000, about 600 previously undetected compounds were found in the 199 water samples drawn, some of which were untreated. Most of the compounds appeared just in raw water, but 19 percent were in treated water and 13 percent were in both raw and treated water. Just 1 percent appeared in the bottled water.

In some cases, the contaminants actually came from the treatment process. They were by products of the disinfection process, or were introduced through the air or carbon filters.

Similar studies have been conducted by other agencies around the country in recent years, and have suggested similar results. But none of those other studies have tested for as broad a range of compounds, the scientists said.

"It's really an important part of protecting public health to understand what likely presence of different contaminates are in our public water systems," said DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell. "It will need to be followed up not merely by further studies but by a closer look at whether current treating and testing methods are adequate to protect public health."

Alexander Lane covers the environment. He can be reached at or (732) 634-1236.

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