The Ulster County electorate voted last week on a proposal to add to the New York State Bill of Rights “the right to clean air and water and a healthful environment.” Locally, 71.8 percent of the voters supported the measure at the polls on November 2. That was slightly more than the 68.9 percent the proposal garnered statewide.
Only a day later the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental advocacy organization, issued its 2021 Tapwater Database.
In Kingston, ten out of 22 contaminants detected exceeded the guidelines proposed by the EWG. Contaminants such as the chemicals arsenic and chloroform were detected at 13 times and 73 times the EWG guidelines respectively. Bromodichloromethane, haloacetic acids (HAA5), dichloroacetic acid, and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) have been detected in levels as much as 215 times the guidelines.
What all these unpronounceable chemicals have in common is their association with a higher incidence of cancer.
And not just in Kingston.
In the village of Saugerties the tap water has 110 times the “safe” amount of haloacetic acids (HAA5), the EWG said. Tap water in New Paltz has 234 times the recommended amount.
Ellenville, Port Ewen, Lake Katrine. All have above the recommended levels of these cancer causing particles.
In Woodstock, along with the haloacetic acids, radium made an appearance in the drinking-water statistics for the first time.
Cancer moves more slowly
Four decades ago, a workman’s torch set a portion of the Buffalo River on fire. It is generally understood that water should not be able to catch fire.
It was the steel and grain industries all along the river who mingled toxic chemicals with the nonflammable water of the Love Canal. That changed the equation.
For the alarm our contaminated water should create among our citizens, it may be unfortunate that fire isn’t pouring out from our pipes when we open the water taps. But cancer moves much more slowly, and the gap between esoteric scientific certainty and readily observable fact creates a suspicious divide among ordinary folks. And media topics even hinting at specialized scientific knowledge seem to glaze the eyeballs of a public already overwhelmed by more immediate existential crises.
The price of food, for example, rose 4.6 percent in September. Or the 700,000 American lives so far lost to the pandemic.
With practical everyday concerns like these, there can be little room left to wonder what haloacetic acids are or where they come from. But for those do wonder, they are a type of disinfection byproduct created when chlorine reacts with various organic materials. Because chlorine effectively kills waterborne bacteria and viruses, the treatment of public water supplies the world over with chlorine is viewed as one of the most important advances in public health. Thus, chlorine is added to our drinking water.
More lethal than bourbon
Many voters interviewed outside the polling location site on Broadway in Kingston rolled their eyes that a proposition for clean air and water should even be necessary. But they reported that they had gamely played along by voting in the affirmative.
Not everyone did. It’s important to take a moment to reflect on the motivations of the 28.1 percent of Ulster County electorate who voted against the right to clean air and water. That 11,393 local souls would vote against an amendment to codify our right to clean drinking water can lead one to ruminating down dark and lonely paths.
It is said that where one is able to infer both ignorance or malice to plausibly describe inscrutable actions of our fellow human beings, one should choose the more generous explanation of the two. And so it may be worth considering that the wording of the initiative was flawed and confusing. Perhaps a proposition rewritten to “protect the freedom and right to have chemicals that cause cancer in our drinking water,” the tally might have been different.
Sentiment aside, adoption of the proposal creates legal standing for citizens of New York State to sue for damages in a court of law, should their drinking water be found to be tainted by the willful, malicious or just plain stupid negligence of the responsible party.
As the cynics say, prepare for the gains to be privatized and the losses to be socialized.
Or to quote local Kingston meatsmoker John “Jingle” Embree, upon hearing the news of contaminants in his drinking water, “If one shot of weapons-grade Kentucky bourbon whiskey doesn’t blow your hair back, imagine what 215 shots of a chemical cocktail could do.”
Water you can trust
The EWG database underscores the need for stricter federal water quality standards and a massive injection of funding for water infrastructure improvements across the country. “EWG’s Tap Water Database offers a panoramic view of what drinking water quality looks like when the federal office meant to protect our water is in an advanced stage of regulatory capture,” charged EWG president Ken Cook. “The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has demonstrated for decades that it is utterly incapable of standing up to pressure from water utilities and polluters to protect human health from the dozens of toxic contaminants in America’s drinking water.”
The Tapwater Database explains the standards that EWG has created for several tap water contaminants. And the database provides guidance about choosing effective water filters to reduce the pollutants found in consumers’ drinking water.
“Our government needs to wake up to the fact that clean water is a human right, regardless of race, income or politics,” consumer advocate Erin Brockovich has said. “Achieving true water equity means getting everyone – every single person – in this country access to affordable, safe tapwater they can trust will not poison them and their loved ones.”