Indy Looks At Water Contamination Across the East End

What’s Happening To Our Water?





The “stew” under Sand Land mine in Noyac.

On a near-weekly basis for the last year, there’s been news of contamination to our surface waters, groundwater, and water bodies. With information about the degradation of our drinking water parsed out over months, it’s easy to become inured to the extent of the crisis. Below, The Independent offers a break down of the chemicals — what they are and their impact — officials and environmentalists on the East End are confronting. (See accompanying article for solutions either underway or under consideration.)

Wells in Yaphank, Westhampton, Wainscott, Hampton Bays, and this week, Quogue, have tested positive for the chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. The discoveries date back to 2014.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the chemicals have been used to make carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and other materials (e.g., non-stick cookware) that are resistant to water, grease, or stains. They are also used for firefighting at airfields and in a number of industrial processes. Lawsuits against the companies that makes the foam as well as area municipalities are underway.

Because these chemicals have been used in an array of consumer products, most people have been exposed to them. Scientists have found PFOA and PFOS in the blood of nearly all the people they tested, but these studies show that the levels in blood have been decreasing, the EPA reports.

EPA’s health advisories indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects, and other consequences (e.g., cholesterol changes).

Cyanobacteria is also known as blue-green algae. Harmful Algal Blooms, aka HABs have been detected in nearly 300 water bodies statewide, and 50 on Long Island, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which monitors the phenomenon.

Contact with cyanobacteria-contaminated waters can result in various symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, skin, eye, or throat irritation, allergic reactions, or breathing difficulties. If ingested, cyanobacteria can be fatal to young children and pets. While the exact cause of HABs is not fully understood, blooms occur most often in waters high in phosphorus and/or nitrogen.

On the East End, Lake Agawam in Southampton displayed the most consistent HAB contamination, all through last spring and summer. By summer’s end, more blooms were discovered on the South Fork at Fort Pond in Montauk, Poxabogue Pond in Sagaponack, and Sayre Pond and Coopers Neck Pond in Southampton. Like counterparts to the south, Marratooka Lake in Mattituck saw an annual recurrence of the HABs.

For the last five years the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, in collaboration with Surfrider Foundation’s nationwide Blue Water Task Force, has been sampling water bodies in East Hampton and Southampton for the presence of the bacteria enterococci.

Enterococci are bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, including humans. Presence of the bacteria in water can be an indicator of fecal waste contamination.

According to Kate Rossi-Snook of CCOM, high concentrations can be attributed to pet and animal waste, runoff, and groundwater saturation related to septic systems that are not well maintained, or the effects of a hurricane.

According to the EPA, enterococci can be indicators of the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. The pathogens can sicken swimmers and others who use contaminated water bodies for recreation or eat raw shellfish or fish. Other potential health effects can include diseases of the skin, eyes, ears, and respiratory tract.

Eating fish or shellfish harvested from waters with fecal contamination can also result in human illness, the EPA advises.
Outside the obvious “ick” factor, the EPA says enterococci are typically not considered harmful to humans. Significant amounts of enterococci in a water body can negatively affect the recreational and economic value of the aquatic resource.

Overabundance of fecal bacteria in the water can cause beach closures, swimming and boating bans, and closures of fishing and shellfishing areas.

Methoprene is a pesticide used by Suffolk County Vector Control to combat mosquitoes. For over 10 years now, environmentalists have argued against its use. They believe it is harmful to estuarine invertebrates, including crabs and lobsters. Throughout his career, as supervisor of the Towns of East Hampton and Southampton, as well as county legislator, Jay Schneiderman has voiced opposition to aerial spraying of the chemical.

“Methoprene is a toxic chemical that mimics and inhibits the growth hormone that triggers the transformation from larval to adult mosquitos,” he explained. “Because crabs and lobster share a similar morphology and evolutionary past, methoprene interferes with their maturation as well.”

County health officials justify its use as a strategy for reducing populations of mosquitos that might carry the West Nile virus. Schneiderman maintains West Nile mosquitoes aren’t found in saltwater wetlands that are sprayed.

Some environmentalists pointed the finger at the larvicide when discussing the massive lobster die-off in the Long Island Sound. Connecticut subsequently banned the substance.

Levels of heavy metals and toxins that exceed federal drinking water standards — in some cases by orders of magnitude — were found in court-ordered test samples of both the surface and groundwater at the 50-acre Sand Land site in Noyac.

Manganese, which has been tied to delayed neurological development in children and pre-Parkinson’s conditions in adults, was found at 87 times the threshold allowed in New York State. Linked to “blue baby syndrome,” nitrates were found at double the state standard.

Elevated levels of lead and arsenic and cobalt were also discovered. The EPA classifies lead as a “probable human carcinogen,” and links it to cardiovascular disease. Arsenic, a known carcinogen, can cause skin, bladder, and lung cancer, if ingested at high enough concentrations.

According to an EPA health advisory, a study of the health effects of individuals who ingested contaminated well water found health effects including lethargy, tremor, and mental disturbances.

Three people in the study died and autopsies revealed manganese levels two to three times the levels found in unexposed individuals.

Another study cited in the EPA advisory considered a 10-year old child who had been drinking water contaminated by a neighboring toxic waste dump. The child had difficulty in both visual and verbal memory, the study found.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Studies in children have suggested that extremely high levels of manganese exposure may produce undesirable effects on brain development, including changes in behavior and decreases in the ability to learn and remember. In some cases, these same manganese exposure levels have been suspected of causing severe symptoms of manganism disease (including difficulty with speech and walking).

“We do not know for certain that these changes were caused by manganese alone. We do not know if these changes are temporary or permanent. We do not know whether children are more sensitive than adults to the effects of manganese, but there is some indication from experiments in laboratory animals that they may be,” the CDC noted.

Mussels collected from DEC monitoring sites tested positive for saxitoxin, prompting the closure of several area waterways last spring.

According to the CDC, ingestion of saxitoxin can cause numbness of the oral mucosa in as little as 30 minutes. In severe poisoning, illness typically progresses rapidly and may include gastrointestinal (nausea, vomiting) and neurological (cranial nerve dysfunction, a floating sensation, headache, muscle weakness, parasthesias, and vertigo) signs and symptoms. Respiratory failure and death can occur from paralysis.

Harvesting shellfish from western Shinnecock Bay, Deep Hole Creek, Halls Creek, or sections of Great Peconic Bay in Southold was banned for a period of time last year. Saxitoxin is a potent neurotoxin and the best-known paralytic shellfish toxin. Ingestion of saxitoxin, usually by consumption of shellfish contaminated by toxic algal blooms, is responsible for the human illness known as paralytic shellfish poisoning. PSP is a marine toxin disease with both gastrointestinal and neurologic symptoms, which have been reported worldwide.

Although there have been cases of PSP occurring in the absence of algal blooms, it’s widely believed blooms of infected algae — aka Gonyaulacoid dinoflagellates — contaminate the shellfish that eat it. Dinoflagellates produce at least 12 toxins; saxitoxin was the first characterized and the best understood. It’s one of the most potent natural toxins and, according to, it’s been estimated a single contaminated mussel has enough saxitoxin in it to kill 50 humans.