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NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute Seeking Public Input On How To Regulate Chemicals

We Urge Radical Reforms And A New Framework

Abandon Individual Chemical Specific Risk Assessment Based Standards

Embrace The “Precautionary Principle” And Transition To A “Treatment Based Approach”

The NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI) is seeking public input on which chemicals and how to regulate to protect your drinking water:

The Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI) will be holding a meeting on Thursday, December 3rd, from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Due to concerns around COVID-19, this meeting will be held remotely, using Microsoft Teams. If you would like to attend, please contact watersupply@dep.nj.gov, and include “December 2020 DWQI Meeting Invitation” in the subject line.

the DWQI will be giving considerations to the next contaminants it will address. Therefore, if you have any input regarding the next topic of research for the DWQI, please include the name(s) of any contaminants of concern you may have in the body of your RSVP email.

We are urging the DWQI to dust off an April 2010 DEP policy paper titled: (my emphases)

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (Department) is focusing on new approaches to address the occurrence of unregulated contaminants found in drinking water throughout the State. These chemicals may be present individually or as mixtures, they are present at low concentrations, and little if any toxicity information is available for most of them. Discussions on possible new approaches for addressing their occurrence began in the 1990s when synthetic organic contaminants were discovered in a water system supplied by groundwater. Subsequently, many additional studies in the State have been conducted, and the Department is currently investigating the possibility of a “treatment technique” approach to regulating mixtures of organic chemicals in drinking water, as summarized below

The DEP solicited formal public comments on this new regulatory strategy and approach back in 2004 (see NJ Register Public Notice), but never followed through on it.

That DEP policy paper is based on several prior and ongoing DEP research projects, most of which focused on important questions, including:

The overall objective of this project is to investigate the effectiveness of conventional and advanced water treatment processes for the removal of unregulated organic chemicals (UOCs) such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products and industrial and household use organic chemicals from surface water systems. Specifically, this research is designed to answer several questions including: 1) What UOCs are removed by conventional water treatment processes? 2) What additional UOCs are removed with advanced processes such as GAC and ozone? 3) What per cent removal can be achieved with conventional and conventional plus advanced processes? 4) What process design parameters and operating conditions are associated with these removals? 5) How effective are current analytical methods in quantifying low levels of UOCs? 6) Is it plausible for NJ to consider a “treatment-based” regulatory approach for managing UOCs in drinking water in the state?

DEP found that there are over 500 unregulated toxic chemicals in NJ drinking water and “little if any toxicity information is available for most of them.”

DEP and the DWQI are flying blind. The public has no idea if their drinking water is “safe”.

[***Note: If you think I exaggerate, keep in mind that the Tom’s River, NJ childhood cancer cluster was caused by an unregulated chemical (according to NJ Dept. of Health): (emphasis mine)

A previously unknown chemical contaminant related to the Reich Farm site – styrene-acrylonitrile trimer — was identified in the Parkway well field (one of the supply’s eight well fields), resulting in the closure of two wells and an expanded water treatment system. …

The [epidemiological] study found that prenatal exposure to two environmental factors in the past were associated with increased risk of leukemia in female children. These exposures were: 1) access to drinking water from the Parkway well field after the time that the well field was most likely to be contaminated, and 2) air pollutant emissions from the Ciba-Geigy chemical manufacturing plant. ~~~ end Note]

DEP found that the current chemical specific risk assessment based approach conducted by the DWQI and the DEP to set chemical specific “maximum contaminant levels” (MCLs) as drinking water standards was not “feasible”:

Information which could be used to develop chronic drinking water concentrations was available for only a small fraction of the TICs. The results of this study suggest that chemical-by-chemical health risk assessment is not a feasible approach for addressing the many unregulated contaminants found at low concentrations in drinking water.

That DEP paper also found that there were available treatment technologies that could remove virtually all these chemicals to very low levels and that these technologies were not expensive (particularly in light of the enormous public health benefits that would result from avoiding adverse health effects of contaminated drinking water.

DEP did not quantify these benefits, nor should a traditional ethically repulsive “cost-benefit analysis” be used to guide these public health decisions. (see also: “The Rights of Statistical People

In light of these incredibly important DEP findings, we are urging the DWQI to abandon the current scientific and regulatory approach to recommending drinking water standards (MCLs) to DEP.

We did this almost a decade ago in a formal “petition for rule making” which DEP denied (for details, see: Filter the Chemical Soup in New Jersey’s Drinking Water).

Instead of the current chemical specific risk assessment based approach to MCLs that DEP found “not feasible”, we urge the DWQI to research and make recommendations to the Governor, the DEP and the Legislature regarding adoption of an entirely new policy, scientific and regulatory framework too regulating drinking water quality, as follows:

1. Embrace the “Precautionary Principle”:

The precautionary principle asserts that the burden of proof for potentially harmful actions by industry or government rests on the assurance of safety and that when there are threats of serious damage, scientific uncertainty must be resolved in favor of prevention.

The precautionary principle has a number of dimensions and benefits that make it superior to a risk assessment based framework:

Environmental scientists play a key role in society’s responses to environmental problems, and many of the studies they perform are intended ultimately to affect policy. The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.

2. Adopt a “Treatment Based Approach”

(see the above linked DEP policy paper, which would need to be updated and expanded upon to form the basis for recommendations by the DWQI to the Gov., DEP Commissioner, and Legislature.

While a treatment based approach could be implemented under current law, the precautionary principle would likely need new legislation.

3. Phase out the current chemical specific risk assessment based approach

The current scientifically flawed and ethically challenged risk assessment based framework has outlived its’ useful life. There are diminishing returns. It is slow, costly, not transparent, and does not adequately protect public health. There are scientific and ethical problems with risk assessment. It is ripe for complete overhaul.

This long known set of flaws are particularly relevant in light of NJ’s new “environmental justice” legislation that directs DEP to consider vulnerability of poor and minority people: (Heinzerling, p. 202)

… most of the epidemiological studies underlying the risk assessments used in developing regulation have involved only white male workers; women, children, the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, and poor people may be more vulnerable to the risks in question than the relatively healthy white male workers assumed in most analyses.

I urge readers and the public to make this case to the DWQI as they requested.

It makes no sense to continue on the individual chemical specific risk assessment based approach, if for no other reason than it would take hundreds of years to get around to regulating all the chemicals we now know are present in drinking water.

This is a heavy lift, scientifically and politically. It will be strongly opposed by the private water companies, because it will increase their costs, reduce their profits, and require capital investment.

It won’t happen without strong public support, backing by the scientific and public health communities, and political demands by environmental groups.

Now is a good time to make it happen – the old regulatory framework is exhausted and discredited.

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