|Paint sludge in stream by Ringwood State Park, 2005 (photo: Jan Barry)|
Across America, government officials have a terrible track record on leveling with residents about toxic substances in our food and water. From pesticides in food to lead in drinking water, officials are generally quick to dismiss public concerns.
Recently, a crowd of upset residents in Ringwood, NJ was assured by EPA officials that the finding of suspected cancer-causing dioxane in water in their community poses no immediate health threat.
Residents of the former iron mining community in Upper Ringwood, where Ford Motor Company dumped paint sludge and other toxic waste decades ago, were told that the latest hazardous contaminant to be found in their midst is at very low levels in a closed mine and local streams.
What federal Environmental Protection Agency officials didn’t tell the 200 or so people crammed into the Ringwood borough council chambers is that Americans are virtually swimming in this dangerous chemical—which is in soap and numerous other household products and increasingly showing up in rivers and ground water across the nation.
A plume of dioxane-tainted ground water under Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, forced the closure of a city well and created concerns that the contamination may reach the Huron River and threaten the city’s main drinking water source, a local news agency, Mlive, reported in January.
Dioxane Linked to Cancer and Kidney, Liver Damage
Studies with test animals found that, over time, breathing fumes or drinking contaminated water or having skin contact with 1,4-dioxane causes liver and kidney ailments, including cancer, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated in a 2007 assessment of this chemical, which is used as a solvent and in the production of many household products, including food.
“Human exposure to 1,4-dioxane may occur by inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact,” the report continued. “Because 1,4-dioxane may be found in tap water, human exposure to 1,4-dioxane may also occur during activities such as showering, bathing, and laundering.” the report added.
Besides what may be in the water, the report adds, “some cosmetics, detergents, and shampoos may contain 1,4-dioxane at levels higher than recommended by the FDA for other products.”
This synthetic industrial chemical is so widespread in American life that it is showing up in the discharge of sewage treatment plants, which often flow into rivers supplying drinking water to downstream communities.
A North Carolina newspaper, The Courier-Tribune, reported last month that dioxane “became of interest in North Carolina after officials statewide conducted EPA-mandated tests ... Studies showed that Fayetteville and other communities along the Cape Fear River downstream of the Triad had elevated levels of 1,4 dioxane in drinking water drawn from the river.”
“Subsequent research traced much of the problem back to wastewater treatment plants in Greensboro, Asheboro and Reidsville along the Haw and Deep rivers that feed into the Cape Fear. The plants were releasing 1,4 dioxane in their treated sewage.”
The implication of such reports surfacing across the country is that the federal government has been slow to alert the public to what its health agencies have found to be a likely cause of cancer in people.
One observer at the EPA meeting in Ringwood raised an additional health risk factor.
“You’re not talking about the synergistic effect of this chemical combined with other chemicals and metals,” said Judith Zelikoff, a New York University environmental scientist who is doing a health study of area residents. “People I talk to have kidney problems,” Zelikoff added.
Previous water tests in the Ringwood Mines Superfund Site have repeatedly found elevated levels of benzene, lead and other hazardous substances. Under EPA oversight, Ford has fitfully removed tons of contaminated soil from the 500-acre site since the late 1980s. Tons more of industrial debris remain in old mine shafts and a landfill next to state parkland.
Several hundred people, many of them Ramapough Mountain Indians, live in the former mining community or moved elsewhere after growing up during the time industrial waste contaminated soil and water in the mountain area next to Ringwood State Park. Streams from the area flow to the nearby Wanaque Reservoir, the primary water supply for millions of residents in North Jersey.
EPA official assured the crowd, which included elected officials from Bergen and Passaic counties, that tests of the water at the reservoir water treatment plant had not found dioxane.
However, they reported that recent tests found dioxane in Park Brook flowing from the dump site and downstream in Sally’s Pond, a picturesque fishing spot by Ringwood Manor, an historic building in Ringwood State Park. Water from the pond flows into the reservoir.
“Our people drink from the springs, from the streams,” said Vincent Mann, a sub-chief of the Ramapough Indians, referring to the outdoors lifestyle of many Ringwood residents who grew up fishing and hunting in the forested Highlands region along the New Jersey-New York border. Mann also raised a concern with EPA officials that hikers in Ringwood State Park also visit the once-remote area.
Joe Gowers, the EPA case manager for the Ringwood Mines Superfund Site, told the crowd that “We believe the 1,4-dioxane has always been here.” It was found at the site in low levels, he said, because “There’s been a change in testing methods.”
He assured the crowd not to worry about these levels, in the range of 140 parts per billion in a mine air shaft full of water to .44 parts per billion in the pond by Ringwood Manor. The EPA has set a health advisory level of 200 parts per billion, he added.
“We have found 5,000 parts per billion in dish detergent,” he said, without elaborating on what that may mean to the average American household.
NJ Lowers Its Safety Limit for Dioxane
With little notice, some government agencies have begun to address dioxane as a health threat. New Jersey recently lowered its health advisory standard for dioxane in groundwater from 10 parts per billion to .4 parts per billion. But that change in a state regulation didn’t make the news. The information was reported to industrial contamination contractors by Cox-Colvin & Associates, a contamination cleanup consulting firm based in Ohio.
“For all active New Jersey sites where 1,4-dioxane is a known or potential contaminant of concern, the use of the new ground water remediation standard is effective immediately upon it’s posting to the NJDEP website (November 25, 2015),” Cox-Colvin noted in an industry newsletter.
“A handful of state governments including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and South Carolina have set advisory levels for 1,4-dioxane in water ranging from 70 μg/L [equivalent to parts per billion] to 0.3 μg/. Until now only Colorado had established an enforceable cleanup standard. With New Jersey and its many chlorinated solvent contaminated sites at the forefront of 1,4-dioxane investigation and remediation, expect the general awareness of this emerging contaminate to increase throughout the country.”
(An earlier version of this essay was published in The Record newspaper on 3/6/16)