AUSTIN — Flooding from Harvey may have focused attention on water quality, but experts say that some Texans were drinking contaminants long before the tropical storm hit treatment plants.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization, reported recently that in Huntsville, for example, the average detection for an unregulated carcinogenic industrial solvent named 1,4-Dioxane was .134 parts per billion (ppb) in 2013-14.
“It is concerning,” said Tasha Stoiber, an EWG senior scientist and co-author of the report, even though Huntsville’s 1,4-Dioxane levels did not reach 0.35 ppb in daily drinking water, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, over the course of a lifetime, increases cancer risk. “It’s harmful.”
1,4-Dioxane, an industrial solvent, is also among a number of chemicals in drinking water that experts say may be lethal but still legal under federal rules, and scientists worry that could remain unchanged under new EPA leadership.
“The EPA has selected 1,4-Dioxane as one of the first 10 chemicals to be reviewed under the nation’s new chemical safety law, but EWG is concerned, as President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the EPA’s chemical safety office has authored two industry-funded studies arguing that people can safely be exposed to levels 1,000 times higher than the agency’s increased risk level for the chemical,” the report’s authors wrote.
Brian Zabcik, clean water advocate at Environment Texas, an Austin nonprofit, noted that the Trump Administration has proposed a 31 percent EPA budget cut.
“Unfortunately, Texas has a serious water pollution problem and 1,4-Dioxane is just one of many chemicals that contaminate our drinking water and the places we swim and fish,” Zabcik said. “The government needs to crack down on this pollution and make our waters safe again.”
According to the report, 1,4-Dioxane appeared in El Paso, Houston and Wichita Falls water supplies, along with those of numerous other utility districts across Texas during the testing period.
Contaminated groundwater from legacy pollution or hazardous waste sites is a source of 1,4-Dioxane, as are contaminated surface waters from industrial wastewater discharge.
1,4-Dioxane is also a “common impurity in cosmetics and household cleaning products, as well as shampoos, foaming soaps, bubble baths, lotions and laundry soaps,” according to the report.
The EWG complied data from tests conducted by utilities from 2013 and 2015 as part of the EPA’s third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule program, with some additional testing by utilities from 2010-15.
But there’s no long-term monitoring data or more-recent data, because the EPA has no requirement for additional testing.
In a telephone interview, Stoiber said that 1,4-Dioxane is soluble in water, mobile once it is in the environment and difficult to remove.
“Advanced oxidation processes can remove it from drinking water, but these technologies are often cost prohibitive for utilities,” Stoiber said. “For 1,4-Dioxane, unfortunately, removal with a home filter is difficult.”
Huntsville officials did respond to a question about whether the city’s water-treatment plant can filter 1,4-Dioxane out of the local drinking water.
The city “consistently monitors for all regulated parameters required by the TCEQ (as mandated by the EPA),” Lee Woodward, the city secretary, wrote in an email. “The city has maintained a Superior-rated water system since 1983.
“The quality of the drinking water distributed to residents and local businesses is of utmost concern and is always a priority for the city. The city annually issues a Consumer Confidence Report (as required by the TCEQ) to all customers, which contains results for all regulated contaminants and is also available on the city website at tx-huntsville.civicplus.com/475/Water-Quality-Report.”
But 1,4-Dioxane was not the only Texas tap-water contaminant that EWG reported on.
Cities across Texas showed problematic water supplies involving dozens of contaminants, according to an EWG tap-water database.
And at the state level, the TCEQ has been hurt across the board by a consistent legislative refusal to adequately fund it.
“The commission has had to reduce its workforce by around 460 FTEs over the past 20 years, yet it also reports a 44 percent increase in permits granted and a 30 percent increase in enforcement actions,” Zabcik said in an email. “Forcing the agency to do more work with fewer people may be what the Legislature wants, but it’s not what the people of Texas need.”
Stoiber said the EPA should strengthen rules on drinking water nationwide.
“At the federal level, requiring a national standard for drinking water is supported,” Stoiber said in an email. “However, the EPA has not set a single new drinking water MCL (maximum contaminant level) for an unregulated contaminant since 1996.”
Stoiber recommends that consumers speak up about water-quality questions.
“At the citizen level, you can be informed about what is in your drinking water and voice your concerns to elected officials,” Stoiber said, “especially in the case where the pollutant is difficult to filter out with a home filter.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information online:
Tapwater database: www.ewg.org/tapwater/state.php?stab l?