Although city officials told Southeast Queens residents last week that their drinking water does not pose a health threat, residents remain skeptical and many are drinking only bottled water.
Last Thursday, the Department of Environmental Protection alerted 12,000 residences in St. Albans, Cambria Heights and Hollis that above-normal levels of tetrachloroethylene, commonly known as PERC, were found in monthly samples taken on May 1.
The health effects of PERC, which is most often used by dry cleaners and in auto repair shops, are unclear, particularly in low doses. Chronic exposure to elevated levels can lead to dizziness, confusion and nausea. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems it a probable carcinogen.
The federal standard for acceptable PERC levels in water is five parts per billion — samples taken last week detected more than twice that amount, at 13 parts per billion. That prompted DEP to notify residents of the contamination, as required by the EPA, by leaving leaflets at residents’ doors. The city agency also assured them the water did not pose a risk.
But many in the neighborhood are not taking their chances. Earl Hall, a Cambria Heights resident since 1990, said even before the announcement, he didn’t drink the local water. “I never trust the tap water for drinking,” he said as he stood next to two gallon jugs of water and a package of 24 bottles in his kitchen on Monday.
Some of his neighbors are unsure about when they will start drinking tap water again — if ever. Timothy Smith, who lives around the corner from Hall, said he plans on drinking bottled water indefinitely. He was already suspicious of the water last week, a day before officials announced the contamination.
“Before they notified us, I thought, ‘That water doesn’t taste right.’ It tastes like it wasn’t fresh,” he said.
DEP responded to the threat by flushing fire hydrants throughout the affected area, thereby drawing fresh supplies into the system. On May 1, out of five samples, one showed levels higher than the acceptable standard. Contaminated samples reached 14 on Thursday when 50 more samplings were collected. By Friday, only traces were detected, low levels that disappeared completely by Sunday.
The city’s official monitoring shows no levels of PERC were detected as of Tuesday.
The source of the toxin remains unclear. Ian Michaels, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said Cambria Car Wash, at 208-15 Linden Blvd., was being investigated after an illegal connection to the water system was discovered. In addition to the hook-up, there was no back valve installed, meaning used water could reverse flow into the system.
Michaels said his agency isn’t sure if the car wash is the source, and other businesses in the area are being examined.
Southeast Queens’ drinking water wells —contamination of which has sparked similar fears in the past — have been ruled out as the source, according to Manuel Caughman, vice president of Community Board 12, who kept in close contact with the agency.
Dozens of wells channel groundwater to people’s homes, but the recent contamination comes from the water supply that originates in upstate reservoirs and snakes through local pipes before reaching people’s faucets.
In the 1990s, a PERC spill near 107th Avenue and 180th Street caused the closure of one well. The area is still being cleaned up more than 10 years later, Caughman said.
Following the recent contamination scare, DEP officials said they plan to conduct more frequent PERC tests in the future. Officials said they consulted with city Department of Health and the EPA before concluding the water was safe.
But that is cold comfort to some residents. Hall said his wife worried about washing clothes in the water, and some neighbors were wary of brushing their teeth with it.
Even though he keeps his tap water drinking to a minimum, Hall said the recent increase in water rates adds insult to injury for residents. “They are paying for contamination,” he said. “They are not getting a break on their bill.”