Scientists from Stony Brook University and the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology say they have developed a new filter system that can be connected to a home’s existing septic system and will remove the vast majority of nitrogen and other pollutants from wastewater.
The scientists also have unveiled new research revealing that household products being released into the environment through a home’s toilets are a significant source of groundwater contamination by 1,4 Dioxane, a chemical additive that has been shown to cause cancer and is found at some of the highest levels in the country in Suffolk County’s drinking water supplies.
The center’s director, Dr. Christopher Gobler, said that the research hub has shown the new “nitrogen removing biofilters” — essentially just containers of layers of sand and wood chips — have been shown to be effective at removing as much as 90 percent of nitrogen from wastewater, 98 percent of pathogens, and the vast majority of pharmaceuticals and other common contaminants in waste water. They also remove as much as 60 percent of 1,4 Dioxane, a soaring amount for a chemical that has proven stubborn to filter out of water and has forced the Suffok County Water Authority and other municipal water suppliers to abandon drinking wells contaminated with it.
The center expects to have a its new filters ready to be installed in homes. They are expected to cost about $20,000 and will eligible for the same grants from Suffolk County and the local towns that fund installations of the new septic I/A septic systems.
“In most towns, they should be essentially free,” Dr. Gobler said of the grant programs that cover the price of installing the filters.
At an unveiling of the new systems in late February, Stony Brook researcher Dr. Arjun Venkatesan, also told observers of the Zoom event that a year-long study by scientists from the center showed that the amount of 1,4 Dioxane coming out of wastewater from homes in Suffolk County is more than 10 times higher than the background levels in groundwater — a troubling discovery only someone assuaged by the announcement about the effectiveness of the filters at removing it.
Long Island already was known to have the highest concentrations of 1,4 Dioxane in the United States in its groundwater — some 100 times higher in some areas than the levels determined by the federal Environmental Protections Agency to be a risk of causing cancer in humans.
The discovery by the center shows that contamination in groundwater is not just coming from point-source pollutions like spills of gasoline and solvents.
“This validates all of the work that has been going on for the last four years regarding 1,4 Dioxane in household products and their contribution to drinking water quality and degradation of drinking water supplies,” said Adrienne Esposito, director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which spurred the study of the role household products containing 1,4 Dioxane played in the chronic contamination. “We found that 80 percent of common household products have 1,4 Dioxane, very high levels in many cases.”
The Center for Clean Water Technology is a joint venture of the state and Stony Brook University and was conceived by former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. Along with the new biofioters, the center is also working on the development of their own I/A septic system. The center has set a “10, 20, 30” goal: a system that reduces nitrogen in waste water below 10 milligrams per liter (half what the current standard is in Suffolk County), costs less than $20,000 and will last for 30 years.
The latest developments are the latest important step in the shift Suffolk County has been making since embracing the understanding that decades of ignoring nitrogen concerns in favor of profits for home builders was also ignoring commercial potential.
“All of this is creating a new ecosystem where the academic arena is informing the commercial development of alternatives and it’s coordinated with the regulatory and policy making areas, to answer the question: if we were to do things different to improve water quality, how do we do that and is the technology available,” said Kevin McDonald of The Nature Conservancy. “And we’re about to hear one more time, from the local guys: yes.”