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Health official answers community questions after water advisory issued for private well owners in Orient

Suffolk County health officials issued a water quality advisory last week for private well owners in Orient, after detecting “forever chemicals” in local water supplies.

The county has been sampling private wells north of Skippers Lane, south of Main Road, west of Tabor Road and east of Racketts Court after PFOS and PFOA were detected at levels above the state drinking water standard in five on-site wells. The source of contamination has not yet been identified. Public water is regularly tested and regulated by the health department, so connected homes do not need to have their water tested.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has been offering affected residents an alternative source of drinking water, such as bottled water, a treatment system or connection to public water where available. 

PFOS and PFOA are used in industrial and commercial products such as firefighting foam, food packaging, water-resistant clothing and stain-resistant carpeting. The state Department of Health set a maximum contaminant level for the chemicals in August 2020.

The county has urged residents in the impacted area who have private wells that have not recently been sampled to contact the county Office of Water Resources at 631-852-5810 to have their water tested free of charge. Samples will be tested for bacteria, volatile organic contaminants, pesticides, metals and other emerging contaminants.

The advisory has left many residents alarmed and confused. More than 60 people joined a Zoom panel hosted by the Orient Association Monday night, where a county water official explained PFAS contaminants and the scope of water testing in the area, followed by a question-and-answer. Many audience members questioned how the chemicals turned up in local water supplies and how the county determined a testing boundary in the area, as well as next steps.

Answers from Jason Hime, principal public health engineer for the county Department of Water Resources, have been included below. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are PFOS and PFOA?

A: PFAS compounds have been used in a number of consumer products such as firefighting foam, an aqueous film forming foam that’s used on fuel fires. They are also generally associated with coatings that repel water, oil, stains, grease. They’ve been used in textiles, food packaging and nonstick cookware. 

The EPA recognized these as a potential health concern about two decades ago and they spoke with manufacturers in the U.S. about phasing out their production. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of the chemicals. There are thousands of these PFAS chemicals out there, but these have been some of the most extensively studied. They are persistent in our environment and in our bodies. 

Q: Why should we be concerned?

A: PFOS and PFOA are highly persistent. They concentrate in the proteins in the body and they’re cleared slowly, primarily through urination. Exposure may occur through drinking water, some of the foods that we eat and through indoor and outdoor air.

Epidemiological studies have indicated PFOA can increase risk of kidney cancer, liver and immune system toxicity, higher cholesterol levels, thyroid toxicity and preeclampsia, or pregnancy related hypertension. Animal studies with regard to PFOA have confirmed some of the observations above that we mentioned. 

PFOS is similar. The contaminant can increase risk of immune system toxicity, higher cholesterol, altered metabolism of lipids, preeclampsia and pregnancy related hypertension, and types of cancer.

Q: How are these compounds regulated?

A: The federal government is working toward regulating these PFAS compounds and the state has taken some great strides with their rapid response task force. About six years ago is when the public water supply industry was required by the federal government to do what’s called unregulated contaminant monitoring. 

The state has adopted emergency regulations that classify PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances, which enables agencies to tap into financial resources to provide alternative water supplies to residents where there’s exposure above the drinking water standard. 

A health advisory level is really a conservative estimate. It’s designed to protect the most sensitive individuals out there. It’s not a bright line between what causes adverse health effects and what won’t cause adverse health effects. Adverse health effects are really going to vary depending on many factors, including the concentration of the chemical that you’re exposed to, the duration of the exposure and certain individuals’ susceptibility to those health effects. 

Q: What are some of the contamination sites and investigations that Suffolk County is looking at with state agencies?

A: We’ve been routinely coordinating with state agencies for about six years, since that emerging contaminant regulation was enacted with the Department of Environmental Conservation. Areas where there’s known or suspected contamination, we’ve initiated private well surveys and that’s exactly how we’ve initiated this Orient private well survey. We’ve also done a number of groundwater investigations working with state agencies around airports, county facilities and near public water supply wells. Several sites became superfund sites based on the work that we conducted. These include Gabreski Airport, Hampton Bays Fire District and East Hampton Airport.

Q: Why is the county testing in

A: Suffolk County Department of Health Services received PFAS analytical results from a number of sources, including public water supply surveillance testing that we do. There are several transient non-community water supplies in this area, including Oysterponds School, United States Postal Service, the Country Store and the Orient Yacht Club. At the Oysterponds Elementary School, we had detections right at the minimum reporting level.

We test out there every year. We have a limited capacity to collect surveillance samples, using a quarter-percent sales tax money and a grant that we were awarded. So we found some of the test results from our public supply surveillance testing, as well as test wells that we conduct as part of new developments that are going on in the area. Anyone out there that’s developing and redeveloping a property that has to go through our office of wastewater management. Their application process, if you have an onsite well, is now going to require you to test for emerging contaminants including PFOS, PFOA and 1,4 dioxane. We’ve obtained a lot of new results based on that. 

Out of all the testing that we’ve seen, there were five detections that were above the PFOS/PFOA maximum contaminant levels. Four of the five were marginally above the drinking water standard of 10 parts per trillion. They were below 20 parts per trillion. There was one detection at a non community public water supply system. They recently installed a replacement well and they had seen detection slightly above 100 parts per trillion in that replacement well. They’re working to install treatment and they’re currently advising folks of the detection above the drinking water standard. 

We conducted our outreach, including mailing letters to the last known property owners, and then going door-to-door providing the same outreach materials in the survey area last week. We initiated sampling on Monday. We envision, based on the response, it’s probably going to take us a few weeks to get through everybody. In the few days that homeowners got the notice to the first day of sampling, we’ve got an almost 50% response rate, which I think is really good. Obviously, we’d love to see 100% response. If the data supports it, we may approach the state agencies about potentially expanding the survey in the future. We may also consider a possible groundwater investigation depending on the data. 

Q: What happens if I apply to have my well sampled?

A: After we receive your application for sampling, one of our public health sanitarians is going to contact you and they’re going to schedule the sample collection event. Sampling is typically conducted between eight in the morning through about noon or one o’clock in the afternoon, Monday through Thursday. An adult does need to be home for the sampling; we want to get into the home and sample pre- and post- filtration. Many of the homeowners that we’ve spoken to have existing filtration devices. We want to see what’s raw from the well and then we’ll be sampling what’s after the filtration unit and see what you’re actually being exposed to. 

If we see a detection that is over a drinking water standard, we’re going to reach out to you. We’ll also be reaching out to the state agencies and letting them know that there was an exceedance and their contractor will be in touch with you about providing an alternative water source. Initially, the interim water source has been bottled water. And then they’re going to evaluate whether there’s public water available. If no Suffolk County Water Authority or other water suppliers mains are in front of your properties, they’re probably going to look to offer you a point of entry treatment system if you don’t currently have one. If you do have a treatment system, they’re probably going to encourage you to continue to test that and maintain your existing filtration system. Our recommendation for general private well owners is to have your wells sampled once per year because water quality changes over time and the efficacy of filtration systems could change over time.