By KENNY WALTER
TRENTON – Despite concerns from environmental groups, state and local officials have said drinking water in New Jersey is safe.
Lawrence Hajna, press officer for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said a recent report by advocacy group Environmental Working Group (EWG) identified carcinogenic metal chromium-6 in 138 water systems in New Jersey, but the levels detected were so low that the public is not currently at risk.
“If you step back and you look at the big picture, these numbers across the board where they have shown up in 138 water supplies are way below the federal standard,” Hanja said. “Water is tested regularly and has to conform with all existing state and federal standards.
“That’s not to say more research isn’t worthwhile. Water that comes from our utilities is tested constantly, and realistically speaking your water coming out of your tap is probably more thoroughly tested than the drinking water you buy from a bottle.”
The Sept. 20 EWG report is based on data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to show that 200 million Americans in all 50 states have water with chromium-6 detected in it.
According to Hanja, New Jersey and the federal government currently have a 100 parts per billion standard for total chromium. However, he said there are two forms of chromium – trivalent, which is benign, and hexavalent chromium, which is also known as the harmful chromium-6. There is currently a federal study of chromium-6 to determine what the maximum level of the substance can be in water without increasing a risk for consumers.
“What we’ve gathered over the past several years is data on participating water supplies, and actually the news is pretty good,” Hanja said.
“Only one system [in Madison, New Jersey] exceeded one part per billion (ppb) – the rest were either at or close to or way below one part per billion. For many there weren’t even detections.”
Hanja said to put in perspective what “one part per billion” really is, it would be like a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
However, EWG has proposed a 0.02 ppb federal standard.
Hanja explained the ongoing study that is expected to be released for public comment in 2017.
“The EPA and DEP and about 175 utilities in New Jersey are participating in a sampling or a poll, but it is a statistically significant large sample,” he said. “There are a number of contaminants for which the EPA does not currently have a specific standard.
“So they require testing of a number of contaminants, not just chromium-6. They are trying to gather data to assess what is the problem.”
Dave Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action, said that while chromium-6 can be dangerous at low dosages, it is not a huge risk in New Jersey.
“It’s a very potent carcinogen, so you don’t want to be drinking it,” he said. “It is very harmful at very low levels – with that said our standards are set based on drinking two liters of water a day for 70 years.
“So, we don’t want this in our water, but it is not like people should be freaking out and buying bottles of water.”
However, while saying New Jersey had some of the strictest standards in the country, Pringle said it is impossible to be completely sure the water is safe.
“There are hundreds of different water systems and based on where you are and the pipes or if you’re untreated water or you’re 20 miles from where that water is treated,” Pringle said. “There are too many variables to the point where the EPA says it’s illegal to provide unqualified assurances of safety.
“It’s illegal to say the water is safe. There is no safe level of a carcinogen, it just matters how great the level of risk is.”
The Marlboro Municipal Utilities Authority is one of the 138 entities in New Jersey mentioned in the report to have chromium-6 in the water.
In a public notice issued by the utility, the metal was acknowledged to be in the water at small levels.
“Marlboro Water Utility’s chromium-6 levels remain well below all existing legal limits,” the notice states. “Marlboro Water’s total chromium per the 2015 Water Quality report ranged from 0.21 ppb to 0.35 ppb, significantly below the maximum contamination level.”
“Marlboro Water participates in the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule 3 program which includes monitoring levels of chromium-6 and other unregulated contaminants. The chromium-6 data samples for the period ending April 2015 ranged from 0.052 to 0.16 parts per billion.”
The Old Bridge Municipal Utilities Authority (OBMUA), which was also listed in the EWG report, responded as well.
“While EWG is an advocacy group and not a scientific organization, we wanted to emphasize that your drinking water is both clean and safe,” according to a statement posted on the OBMUA website. “Our drinking water meets or surpasses quality standards, including those set for chromium.
“OBMUA water contains total chromium levels under 10 parts per billion, which is significantly below the current standard used by the DEP and EPA.”
While the risk is low, Joe Todaro, director of operations for Gold Medal Service, said there are ways for homeowners to improve the safety and quality of their water.
“The only possible way for you to be assured all the time is to put some sort of filtration on your house,” he said. “That is going to take out a lot of the things we talk about, the chromium-6 and lead and things like that.”
Todaro said the East Brunswick-based company can scan a homeowner’s water and determine if there are other substances in it.
“There are testing labs that test for every little thing possible,” he said. “What we do is we do more of a scan on what is called total dissolved solvents and that basically says there’s something besides water in your water.”
Todaro also said there has been a push for more filtration systems and water softeners in recent years as awareness continues to grow.
“There’s been a push in the last couple of years,” Todaro said. “Softeners and things like that were really prevalent to the countryside, but now in the last couple years there’s been a push even for city water.”