Editorial: Public Health First


With questions remaining about the source of the chemical contamination that has infiltrated more than 100 private water wells in Wainscott, the answer to one question is already known: When exposed to certain levels of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) human health can be threatened in a variety of ways. The chemicals can harm the liver and thyroid as well as fetuses and breastfed infants. The can also cause cancer, according to scientific studies collected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of a larger effort to examine water quality in the area around the East Hampton Airport, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services last year began testing private wells in Wainscott. The tests came after other groundwater wells on Long Island, including some near the Air National Guard base at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, showed PFC contamination. After finding contamination in some wells, the health department expanded the area of testing in January, with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation launching an investigation into the source of that contamination.

So far, of 398 wells in the testing area, 118 have shown some level of PFC — but just nine of them show levels above an EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. However, while New York has not adopted its own health safety standard, neighboring New Jersey has set a far lower level of 13 parts per trillion. In essence, while PFCs are persistent in the environment, to what level they pose a health risk remains unknown.

The East Hampton Town Board is making the right decision by pushing forward with a plan to provide filtration systems for all affected homes, no matter what the level of contamination. When public health is potentially at risk, it is incumbent on government to step in where it can, even as the source of the contamination — and a responsible party — remain unknown.  Moving ahead with what will likely be a lengthy and expensive effort to bring public water to the hamlet is wise, but for those homeowners living with a potential health risk in their own backyard, ensuring safe drinking water as swiftly as possible is imperative.

For those in the affected area concerned about their drinking water, the town is offering bottled water delivery, which can be arranged by calling (631) 324-4183.