EPA Superfund Sites: An Overview On Environmental Hazards And Superfund Process
Emma Schultz, M.S. | Scientific Contributor
Do you know where your nearest Superfund site is? Chances are there is one close by, given that one out of every six Americans lives within three miles of an EPA-designated major hazardous waste site. There are two sites located within four miles of my childhood home, in an idyllic and quiet suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. I now live within the same distance of five sites -- and I had no clue.
Superfund Sites - Environmental Hazards
What Is The Superfund Process?
The concept of Superfund sites is widely known and understood, but the intricacies of the program and the approach to hazardous waste mitigation are elaborate and prolonged, as can be expected of any federally-funded long-term project.
In December of 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), now known better as Superfund, which authorized the EPA to remediate hazardous waste spills and sites, and obliged those responsible for the waste - the Potential Responsible Party - to either clean it up on their own dollar or offset the cost of EPA-led cleanup efforts. Superfund had abundant funding early in its existence due to taxes levied on chemicals and oil; those taxes, however, lapsed in 1995, and financing now comes from taxpayers.
There are multiple stages in the Superfund process once a site is identified, with the first step being a Preliminary Assessment or Site Inspection. If the site is an emergency such as a chemical spill, Removal Action is taken. Otherwise, Remedial Action is planned for, which often leads to years-long planning, cleanup, and remediation. Community involvement is frequently key during the early stages of Superfund designation, and the Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) program is an outreach effort designed to connect with citizens and businesses for the duration of a Superfund's existence.
After initial study, sites are given a score on the Hazard Ranking System. If a site poses enough of a threat to environmental and human health, the EPA announces its addition to the National Priorities List (NPL), pending public comment and input. NPL sites are eligible for extensive, and often long-term, federal funding through the Superfund program. These NPL-listed sites are now officially Superfund sites.
Following NPL designation, a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study is conducted. The Remedial Investigation collects information on-site such as water and soil samples, and the follow-up Feasibility Study analyzes various cleanup methods. The EPA then selects the most suitable cleanup alternative and provides it to the community as a Proposed Plan.
A Record of Decision notes the cleanup alternative chosen for the site. In the Remedial Design phase, the cleanup plans are drawn up, and are finally acted upon in the Remedial Action stage. A goal of Remedial Action is to return sites to productive use as quickly as possible. Whether 'productive' means industrial, housing, commercial, or greenspace depends on conversations and input from the surrounding community.
A review of site cleanup efforts occurs every five years. If cleanup goals have all been met, a portion or whole of a Superfund site may then be listed for removal from the NPL. In theory, meeting all cleanup goals sounds achievable - especially given the lengthy planning and implementation phases - but there are many sites that remain listed decades later, because groundwater and soil are still polluted.
Where Can You Learn More About Superfund Sites?
Resources for homeowners:
Digging Into The Environmental Working Group Tap Water Database
Eric Roy, Ph.D. | Scientific Founder
This past week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a website where people punch in their zip code, and view contaminants found in their water. As a company that uses water quality data to optimize each customer’s water filter, we applaud EWG for putting in the enormous amount of time & effort to build the database so the public can learn about their water. Unfortunately, we are seeing that these data are being used to generate inflammatory headlines, which can leave consumers confused and unnecessarily panicked.
We will be updating this blog post as more questions come in. If you have your own question, please reach out to us (email@example.com). One of our water nerds will do their best to get back to you very quickly, even if it’s outside of our business hours.
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 31, 2017
Are All Potential Contaminants Listed In The EWG Tap Water Database?
No. The EWG Tap Water Database pulls data from municipal measurements, but municipalities are only required to test for certain things. Simply put, you can’t detect what you don’t look for. One example of this can be seen by punching in Zip Code 28402 (Wilmington, North Carolina) into the EWG Tap Water Database. GenX, a chemical that has been discharged into the Cape Fear River by Chemours since PFOA since 2010, is not listed, even though it’s been in the center of a huge topic of conversation for the past 2 months in the local media.
Why Is The “Health Guideline” Different Than The “Legal Limit?”
The two different thresholds use different criteria. For example, the “Health Guideline” cited by EWG for carcinogens is defined by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) as a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of cancer, while the “Legal Limit” refers to the MCL which is the limit that triggers a violation by EPA. The OEHHA's criteria are established by toxicological techniques, while the EPA limits are negotiated through political channels. We wrote an article that addresses this topic in much more detail for those who are interested.
Why Am I Just Learning About This Now?
The EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act requires municipalities to make water quality test data public in Consumer Confidence Reports. These reports are required to talk about the water's source, information about any regulated contaminants found in the water, health effects of any regulated contaminant found above the regulated limit, and a few other things. As discussed before, the data in the EWG report use different criteria than the EPA, and it's hard for people to make sense of what's what.
Are The Data Correct If My Water Comes From A Private Well?
No. The EWG Tap Water Database only has data for municipal tap water. Private wells are completely unregulated, and there's no requirement to conduct testing. If you'd like us to dig into our additional water quality databases to help you understand likely contaminants in your private well, we're happy to do so. We don't offer testing services, but we're happy to help you find an accredited lab in your area, give advice on which tests to run, and help you interpret the results! We offer this service for free.
What About My City's Water Quality?
Hydroviv makes it our business to help you better understand your water. As always, feel free to take advantage of our “help no matter what” approach to technical support! Our water nerds will work to answer your questions, even if you have no intention of purchasing one of our water filters. Reach out by dropping us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through our live chat. You can also find us on Twitter or Facebook!
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Rebecca Labranche | Laboratory Director, A&L Laboratory
How Is Drinking Water Regulated?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets regulatory limits for over 90 contaminants in water provided by public water systems. The EPA sets these limits in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect public health in the communities that are using this water. The EPA limits are divided into two main categories. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems. Primary standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water that negatively affect human health. National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations are non-enforceable guidelines regulating contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects (such as skin or tooth discoloration) or aesthetic effects (such as taste, odor, or color) in drinking water. EPA recommends secondary standards to water systems but does not require systems to comply. In addition to the federal EPA standards, The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) gives individual states the opportunity to establish their own drinking water standards if they are not more lenient than those set by the EPA's national standards.
So how do these federal and state regulations effect private well-owners? These same limits and guidelines used for public water are also adopted by most institutions and lenders as a way to determine if the property provides potable, safe water. When a home goes up for sale, if the buyer is financing, they will likely be required to test the water. While lenders may be concerned about a potable water source in order to protect their investment, there are no official rules or regulations for determining potability of private wells. Many states and towns do not even require sampling of private wells after installation. It is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain their well and water supply.
How Often Should Drinking Water Be Tested?
Private well water should be tested a minimum of once per year. Drinking water supplies obtained from shallow dug wells and surface water sources should be tested more frequently as they are more susceptible to contamination. Annual testing of both dug and drilled wells should check for the most common contaminants which are bacteria, nitrates and nitrites. Even if your water has consistently been safe to drink in the past these parameters could change without you knowing and affect the safety of your water. New drilled wells should be tested with a more comprehensive water test which includes bacteria, nitrates, nitrites, metals, minerals and radon. This test identifies many common primary and secondary contaminants typically found in the bedrock surrounding the well. This comprehensive test should be repeated every 3 – 5 years to ensure the well is still providing safe water.
What Are The Most Common Types Of Drinking Water Contaminants?
Drinking water contaminants can be divided into several categories: Inorganic Chemicals, Organic Chemicals, Radionuclides and Microorganisms. Testing for every possible analyte would be prohibitively expensive but we have put together a comprehensive test package which covers common problems found in our area.
Laboratories throughout the United States will offer similar packages based on the geology in their area.
What Is The Process For Analyzing Drinking Water?
The process of analyzing drinking water varies by laboratory and their methods used. However, the basic premise is the same for all of them. The first step is to obtain a water test kit from the certified drinking water laboratory that you intend to use for the analysis. Test kits are specific to each laboratory and their methods so it is important not to use another laboratory’s bottles. These test kits come with all the information that is needed to collect the sample and get it back to the laboratory in the required time frame. The sampling instructions are usually step by step and easy to follow. Once the water is received by the laboratory it will be analyzed for the requested parameters and report will be generated and sent back to the client. The typical turn-a-round time for a comprehensive water test is 2-3 business days.
Using a certified laboratory is very important. They are monitored by their state and undergo periodic inspections to ensure that they are producing the highest quality data. During these inspections their instruments, standard operating procedures, lab technicians, quality control documentation and reporting procedures are reviewed and evaluated. If anything is found to be out of compliance certification for the laboratory can be revoked. In addition to inspections, they also have to complete proficiency tests for each method they conduct to prove that they can perform the method properly and obtain results within the specified limits.
What Are The Risks Associated With Consuming And/Or Using Contaminated Water?
The risks vary greatly depending which contaminants you have in your water. Common health effects include gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, neurological disorders and cancer. These health problems pose a greater threat to young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. The health effects of drinking contaminated water can range from no physical impact to severe illness or even death.
Some of the effects of drinking contaminated water are known almost immediately. Immediate health related issues generally stem from contamination by pathogens such as total coliform and E.coli. Symptoms include gastrointestinal and stomach illnesses such as nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea.
Other contaminants pose health effects that may not be observed for many years. Some of the most common ones are:
Arsenic in water occurs naturally as well as from industrial activities. Studies have shown that chronic or repeated ingestion of water with arsenic over a person’s lifetime is associated with increased risk of cancer (of the skin, bladder, lung, kidney, nasal passages, liver or prostate) and non-cancerous effects (diabetes, cardiovascular, immunological and neurological disorders).
Uranium is a tasteless, colorless, odorless contaminant. Drinking water with uranium amounts exceeding 30ug/L can lead to increased cancer risk, liver damage, or both.
Copper has both long term and short term effects. Some people with short term exposure, experience gastrointestinal distress, and with long-term exposure may experience liver or kidney damage. It is typically introduced into the water from household plumbing systems.
Fluoride has been shown to reduce tooth decay in children's teeth if they receive an adequate level. The optimal concentration, as recommended by CDC is approximately 1.1 mg/L. In the range of 2.0-4.0 mg/L of fluoride, staining of tooth enamel is possible. Above 4.0 mg/L, studies have shown the possibility of skeletal fluorosis, as well as the staining of teeth.
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. High levels of radon gas occur naturally in Maine soil and water, and can move up into a house from the ground. The house then traps the radon in the air inside. Radon gas can also dissolve into well water, which is then released into the air when you use the water.
What Should I Do If The Laboratory Finds Something In My Water?
If tests on your water indicate problems, the next step is to determine what type of system you need to treat the water. This can be a difficult decision because there is a wide variety of water treatment devices on the market today. Water purifiers range from relatively low-cost, simple filter devices for a kitchen faucet to more expensive, sophisticated systems that treat water from its point of entry into a home. Keep in mind, no one water treatment device can solve every problem.
Rebecca Labranche, the Laboratory Director for A & L Laboratory. A & L Laboratory which specializes in drinking water analysis for both public systems and private wells, throughout the State of Maine.
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GenX Contamination In Drinking Water: What You Need To Know
Eric Roy, Ph.D. | Scientific Founder
There has been some major news coverage about "GenX" and other pre GenX perfluoroalkyl chemicals contamination in North Carolina. Whenever something like this makes it into the news, the facts can quickly become obscured, so the aim of this article is to summarize a few key things to know about GenX and other perfluoroalkyl chemicals in drinking water.
What Is GenX?
GenX is a trade name for a chemical (deduced structure shown above) that went into production around 2010 as an alternative to a perfluorooctanoic acid (also known as PFOA or C8) in the synthesis of PTFE (ie Teflon). GenX is therefore essential for the production of common household products including non-stick pans, firefighting foam, and common outdoor fabrics (e.g. Gore-Tex).
Why Do We Care About GenX And Chemicals Like It?
It's pretty simple: 1. These chemicals are known to be toxic (and this link too) 2. They are persistent in the environment, which means that they don't break down, and can contaminate water far from the contamination source.
Is GenX Regulated By EPA?
No. Which means that there are no regulatory limits, and municipalities are not required to test for it. There are a lot of chemicals that fall into this category.
Why Is This Such A Big Problem In North Carolina?
What Are Official Positions On The Situation?
Dupont: In summary, they are saying that even though Chemours is a Dupont spinoff company, they have no comment because it's now a separate entity.
Chemours: Lips are largely sealed right now
Municipalities in Southeast North Carolina: "We are in full compliance of Federal Regulations"
Hydroviv: No kidding. You can't be out of compliance if it's not a regulated chemical.
How To Remove Or Filter GenX And Other Fluoroalkyl Compounds From Drinking Water
GenX is an unregulated trade chemical, and there are no standard test methods to measure it, test a filter's effectiveness against it, or consensus performance specifications. Any filter company that talks about being "rated" or "certified" for GenX is not being honest. Because of this, we are left in the frustrating position of trying to predict how to best remove GenX from drinking water, without any solid way to conduct performance tests.
We get a lot of questions about the effectivness of reverse osmosis (RO) in the removal of these compounds. While we are unaware of internal testing done by our competitors who make RO systems, we would expect RO systems with a high rejection rate to have a reasonable chance of removing GenX.
At Hydroviv, we custom-build water filters using different technology than reverse osmosis. Basically, we custom-formulate filter cartridges with filtration media that best matches the problems in each customer's water. There's a lot of proprietary stuff behind what we do, but in the name of transparency we wanted to give more information that we'd normally give about what we are doing to formulate filters for highly soluble compounds like GenX.
1. We formulate our submicron carbon blocks with a blend of activated carbons and elevated levels of a highly porous metal oxide sorbant blend that other fluoroalkyl compounds have been shown to stick to in the scientific literature.
2. We tighten up the pore sizes of our filters, which slows down the flow and increases the amount of time that the water is in contact with the filtration media, thus improving the overall effectiveness of the filter, when compared to granular or powdered media.
Even though we've taken these steps, we feel like we need to be transparent and remind readers that because there is no standard way to measure GenX or performance specifications to test a filter against... we can't provide 3rd party performance data in the same way that we can for lead, chromium 6, VOCs... It's incredibly frustrating, but in a way... we're in uncharted territory
Filters with these considerations can be ordered through our product's page, and our experts will automatically use your shipping address to know if you are part of the impacted region.
We recommend that people take advantage of our "Help no matter what" approach to technical support. We have been staffing our live chat line through extended hours to answer questions that people may have. If our chat line is busy, you can drop us an email at email@example.com. We will answer as soon as we can.
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Microplastics In Water: What You Need To Know
Caitlin M. Cameron, M.S. | Contributing Scientist
When people think of plastic waste they likely think of items such as bottles, bags, and straws, but there are smaller objects that inconspicuously threaten habitats and wildlife. Microplastic waste is a monumental problem world-wide, but has received little attention until recently. Microplastic waste endangers both organisms living on land and those in aquatic habitats, and may harm humans. Additionally, microplastics interfere with industries like fishing, shipping, and tourism, which suffer at least $13 billion in damages every year from plastic pollution. Microplastics are used in large quantities in many products and are harder to clean up than other plastic materials. This article answers several questions pertaining to microplastics, some of which may surprise consumers.
What Are Microplastics?
The term “microplastics” is used to describe particles that are made of nondegradable plastic, smaller than five millimeters long, and cannot dissolve in water. Several sources are responsible for creating microplastics: mechanical forces, sunlight, and weather wear down and fracture large plastic containers; plastic pellets used for manufacturing; and the small, manufactured plastic beads used in health and beauty products. Known as “microbeads”, these tiny pollutants may be as small as one micrometer (1 μm), making them completely invisible to the naked eye. An estimated eight trillion microbeads enter aquatic environments every day, which is equivalent to lining up microbeads side by side and covering more than 300 tennis courts daily! A 2015 study estimated between 15 trillion and 51 trillion microplastic particles had accumulated in world oceans. Microplastics are entering aquatic environments in copious amounts, and coupled with the small size of these particles, environmentalists are struggling to develop methods to successfully clean up these particles.
Where Do Microplastics Come From?
Microbeads, the manufactured plastic beads that are added as exfoliates, have been replacing natural ingredients in personal care products for the last fifty years. Face wash, skin scrub, hand soap, makeup, shampoo and conditioner, hair dye, sunscreen, baby care products, cleaner, nail polish, deodorant, and toothpaste are just a few of the consumer goods that contain microplastics (including microbeads). These particles can account for up to 90 percent of the ingredients in certain cosmetic products. An even less talked about source of microplastics is nylon and polyester clothing. Laundering nylon and polyester clothing causes tiny bits of plastic to wash down the drain and eventually empty into lakes, streams, and oceans. One study found that as many as 700,000 tiny synthetic fibers (i.e., pieces of nylon or polyester) washed down the drain after one cycle in the washing machine, while a study conducted using four different types of synthetic fleece jackets revealed that every time a synthetic fleece jacket was washed, 1.7 grams of microfibers were washed down the drain.
Why Do We Care About Microplastics?
Microplastics have the potential to pose an environmental hazard when they enter bodies of water. Fish and other aquatic wildlife ingest microplastics, which may irritate or damage their digestive system. If microplastics are not excreted and instead accumulate in the gut, the animal may mistakenly believe it is full of nutritious food instead of harmful plastic, resulting in malnutrition or starvation. Microplastics may also affect the feeding behavior, predator avoidance capabilities, and cell function in some vertebrates and invertebrates as well as alter sediment composition. Microplastics also serve as a vessel, carrying pollutants like pesticides and manufactured chemicals such as BPA, DDT, and PCB’s, which may be ingested or filtered by animals. Crustaceans and other filter feeders may also experience a decrease in reproductive success due to the consumption of microplastics. Filter-feeding organisms play an important role in creating a healthy food web, and microplastics may adversely affect the biology and physiology of these animals and any animal who consumes them.
It’s not just wildlife that is threatened by plastics in our water bodies. Evidence suggests that humans who eat seafood are also consuming the plastic particles that fish and shellfish already ingested. In 2014, researchers purchased fish and shellfish from Indonesian and American markets that were selling seafood for human consumption to assess the number of plastic pieces in the animals’ guts. In Indonesia and the United States, approximately one out of every four fish contained small plastic or fibrous debris while one out of every three shellfish sampled in the United States contained some sort of small debris in their guts. While it seems apparent that aquatic wildlife are not the only organisms to consume plastic particles, the effects of microplastic consumption on human health are not yet clear.
What Is Unknown About Microplastics?
A lot. Research on plastic pollution, which includes the study of microplastics, is still a relatively new field, so a great deal is still unknown with regards to microplastics and their effects on aquatic organisms, habitats, and human health. Scientists are still identifying how best to quantify the number of microplastics (in all size ranges) that enter aquatic environments, which organisms consume and accumulate particles, and whether the affected animals harm the predators (including humans) that eat them. In other words, the extent of damage that microplastics are causing to habitats and species at all levels of the food chain need to be studied in much more detail.
What Is Being Done To Learn More?
Researchers are working to answer many unknowns: the extent of microplastics in the ocean; how microplastics uptake in the food web; if pollutants transfer to animals from microplastic particles; and the potential impacts on the conservation and health of aquatic plants and animals. A collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Washington Tacoma and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program has led to the establishment of a reliable method to use weight to quantify the amount of microplastics in sand, sediment, or a water sample. Similarly, many nonprofit organizations were formed to investigate microplastic pollution and its effects on wildlife and human health.
What is Being Done To Fix The Problem?
In recent years, preventing microplastics from entering waterways has received international attention. Important work is ongoing to develop ways to minimize the amount of microplastics going down drains and clean up plastic already polluting bodies of water. Additionally, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and universities are working together to evidence and encourage lawmakers to pass legislation requiring companies to use fewer microplastic ingredients in their products. Several states in the U.S. and countries around the world have banned the manufacture and sale of one-time use plastic products, which will reduce the number of plastic items in a landfill that will eventually become microplastic pieces. Many nonprofit organizations work tirelessly to combat the world’s plastics problem. The Ocean Cleanup Project recently developed a new method to remove 70,000 metric tons of plastic from the sea within ten years. Other efforts include collaborations between nonprofits and clothing manufacturers to create clothing and footwear made entirely out of plastic debris. On a global scale, the United Nations held an environmental assembly for the first time in 2014 involving more than 150 governments who are concerned about the effects of plastic pollution in water bodies around the globe. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was tasked with studying aspects of microplastic debris in marine environments worldwide and developing methods for reducing the number of sources of microplastics. UNEP also works to mitigate the global impacts that microplastics have on habitats, marine flora and fauna, and humans. Closer to home, former President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which banned the use of microbeads in all personal care products manufactured after 2015. This Act was a respectable first step in eliminating the use of microplastics while also increasing public awareness and prompting some corporate action. However, it contains language that leaves room for the use of microbeads in items that are not considered “personal care” or “rinse-off products” like deodorants, nail polish, or cleansers. It also contains loose definitions of the terms “plastic” and “biodegradable”, which allows companies to produce plastic products that biodegrade only slightly (not fully) over a short period of time.
In the short term, focusing on improving wastewater management facilities and their ability to prevent smaller plastic debris from reaching the water has been considered a decent first step. Perhaps more important for long-term success would be a shift in the way we think about all plastic, regardless of size. Treating plastic as a valuable, limited resource like water instead of an inexhaustible resource that can be discarded after one use would ultimately lead to a reduction in the amount of microplastics in water bodies. If companies redesigned products to be more ecofriendly, contain less synthetic material, and use safer chemicals and consumers used these products more responsibly, we will reduce the potential for health threats posed by microplastics.
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Roller Coaster Ride For Water Quality In The Great Lakes
Aakriti Pandey | Contributor
Editor's Note: This article is part of a new initiative to include stories on our blog that link scientific policy to everyday life. Recently, the new administration proposed changes to the EPA budget that would gut the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which could impact the water quality of major cities (e.g. Chicago, Milwaukee)
An upward slope
A downward slide
And the new downward spiral?
Very recent events highlight the need for initiatives like GLRI to remain funded. For example, U.S. Steel Corporation also recently accidentally released hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan, forcing the interception of drinking water intake in the local communities and a closing of many beaches.
Hydroviv's water nerds have a "Help no matter what" technical support policy, and we always answer your drinking-water related questions, regardless of your intent to purchase our products.
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