It's 2003, do you know what's in your drinking water?
March 07, 2003
BY ALEXANDER LANE
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or