From The Editor | January 6, 2017

1,4-Dioxane's Drinking Water Threat

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

1,4-dioxane emerges in the creation of personal care products like cosmetics, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorants through a process known as ethoxylation, which is conducted to make these products less abrasive and increase their foaming. The compound has been classified as a carcinogen by the U.S. EPA and, as such, its presence in waterways is causing concern among activists.

“Once down the drain, the chemical is highly mobile in soil and does not easily break down, leading to contamination of groundwater-fed water sources, also known as aquifers or artesian wells,” said Harry Somma, the Long Island program coordinator for Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), which is leading a fight to establish safe drinking water standards for 1,4-dioxane in New York. “CCE is motivated to work on reducing 1,4-dioxane exposure because it has been found at particularly high levels in drinking water here on Long Island.”

Last month, CCE called on New York State to create a health-based safe drinking water standard to protect consumers. The Suffolk County Legislature sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo calling on the state’s department of health to create the standard.

“As state legislators learn about the threat of 1,4-dioxane, they have been incredibly receptive and willing to take action to reduce the public’s exposure,” said Somma.

The New York State departments of environmental conservation and health (DEC and DOH, respectively) co-lead a team on water quality established by Gov. Cuomo and 1,4-dioxane is among its priorities, per a spokesperson for the two departments. While the EPA lists 1,4-dioxane on its Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 3, which is a prerequisite for potential regulation but establishes no federal drinking water standard, DOH enforces a 50 ppb maximum contaminant level.

“The 50 ppb provides a trigger for both DOH and DEC to take action,” said the dual department spokesperson. “DEC is actively collecting data and information to determine if developing a new water quality standard or guidance value is appropriate.”

If regulations progress to the point that drinking water treatment plants had to remove it, that could pose a problem. But it’s an obstacle that New York has been preparing for.

“Available treatment technology for 1,4-dioxane contaminated water is expensive, energy intensive, and presents a number of engineering challenges,” the spokesperson for DEC and DOH said. “DOH recently approved a demonstration project for a Long Island public water system to use an advanced oxidative process to treat its drinking water. This system should be operational in early winter 2017 and will provide data on treatment.”

DEC and DOH are also working on an initiative to address engineering challenges and investigate other potential treatment technologies, via Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology, which was recently awarded $5 million by Governor Cuomo to address emerging contaminants.

For its part, CCE is not looking to put the onus on treatment plants to protect consumers from 1,4-dioxane.

“Just because the ability to remove it exists, that doesn’t mean we should continue to allow this volatile organic chemical to be continually added to our drinking water sources,” Somma said. “The FDA recommends that companies remove 1,4-dioxane from their products through a method called vacuum stripping, the cost of which is described as negligible. CCE would like this to become a requirement. It is our view that both treatment of our water supplies and removal of the source are necessary to fully protect the public’s health.”

Despite its known effects on health, 1,4-dioxane must undergo a lengthy evaluation process before the EPA will mandate any maximum contaminant level (MCL). While CCE is optimistic about the likelihood that New York’s legislators will establish strict safeguards, this will be a poor substitute for national changes.

“When individual states set differing MCLs and guidance values in either the absence of EPA action or in addition, citizens may become confused about variable scientific results from ongoing research and which value is sufficiently protective of public health,” the DEC/DOH spokesperson said. “Therefore, New York prefers to seek guidance or requirements established by the EPA because such guidance results in consistent application across the country and has the broadest effect and benefit.”

Still, there’s reason to believe the ongoing fight against 1,4-dioxane in New York can have broader implications.

“Hopefully, regulations here in New York will serve as a guide for a national standard, with a rule at the completion of the EPA’s evaluation process,” said Somma.