Communicating 1,4-Dioxane Contamination: A Guide for Board Members


As public awareness surrounding water contaminants like 1,4-dioxane reach a historic high, water utilities and their directors will be relied on to guide their communities through the unknown. 1,4-dioxane is a colorless liquid primarily used as a stabilizer of industrial solvents, greases, and waxes. A highly flammable chemical, its aversion to being absorbed in the soil and high solubility in water make it more widespread than other emerging contaminants of concern. Given its ability to quickly spread and contaminate water sources, water utilities can abate public scrutiny, health risks, and losing ratepayers' trust by establishing a communication plan before discovering contamination.

There are many facets to comprehensively handling 1,4-dioxane in public water systems, including monitoring and sampling, managing risk, treatment, and source mitigation. However, a non-technical aspect that deserves attention from municipalities is the communications side of contamination. Even if the other elements of your action plan are well developed, poor communication can cause fear, mistrust, and erode buy-in from ratepayers. The following contamination communications guide is based on proven methods that have worked for other communities when facing water contamination, and they can help you maintain your authority and the public's trust during times of uncertainty.

Understanding the Risks of 1,4-Dioxane Contamination

Emerging contaminants have become a buzzword among the media, environmental scientists, and water professionals. It's the umbrella term for a new generation of primarily artificial water contaminants that may redefine the EPA's future regulations and how we treat drinking water. Unlike organic pollutants, emerging contaminants often can't be treated with conventional methods found at water treatment plants today. Their unique and diverse characteristics pose a challenge to water providers as there are no single treatment methods to remove all emerging contaminants. This could mean continuous additions to treatment trains as new contaminants are discovered, their health impacts are analyzed, and are eventually regulated to mitigate their threat to drinking water sources.

Determining the health impacts of emerging contaminants takes time, has only recently begun, and has yet to be fully understood by experts. And while many companies are working to devise treatment methods, the solutions are often advanced and costly. In the case of 1,4-dioxane, the chemical has been used commercially since the 1950s, and the EPA only officially proposed to determine it presents an unreasonable risk to fence line communities in July 2023. The treatments required to remove emerging contaminants from drinking water often differ, as the pollutants feature different characteristics. For example, PFAS, another emerging contaminant, has no treatment methods in common with 1,4-dioxane. For communities needing to treat both, this could result in multiple capital expense projects that stress the budgets of water providers and their ratepayers.

But water providers have reason to act. In the EPA's Final Risk Evaluation for 1,4-dioxane,1,4-dioxane's health risks include "risks of liver toxicity, adverse effects in the olfactory epithelium, and cancer from inhalation or dermal exposures to 1,4-dioxane, as well as from ingestion of drinking water." If utilities detect 1,4-dioxane in their drinking water, customers will look to them as the authority to navigate this contamination. An effective communication strategy is crucial to maintaining authority and letting your customers know you have the contamination under control.

Crafting an Effective Communication Strategy

SL Environmental has vast experience in water contamination and has served water utilities for over 20 years. In our experience, we’ve found that the water utilities who are able to quickly respond to contamination events by communicating proactively and transparently with their ratepayers, are the most successful in maintaining public trust. Water utilities may not always have the resources to establish a public communication strategy before discovering water contamination. However, the more proactive they can be, the better they can avoid the risk of losing public trust while managing other aspects of the contamination action plan.

By following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) proven crisis communication guidelines and studying the success stories of communities that employed these methods in the face of PFAS contamination, such as the WRD PFAS remediation program, water utilities can efficiently build a quality communication strategy to deploy in the event of 1,4-dioxane contamination.

Implementing Best Practices for Crisis Communication

The CDC published a set of six principles for conducting effective crisis and risk communication before, during, and after a crisis or emergency. By using these principles as guidelines for building your utility's communications strategy, you can ensure your utility is prepared to address an emergency with the public. Many agencies that have successfully communicated with constituents in response to a water quality incident have employed similar tactics in their messaging.

The six key points the CDC emphasizes when devising communication in an emergency include:

  1. Be First: People remember and often prefer the first source of information that they receive. Relaying time-sensitive information quickly from the start is advantageous for a water utility to establish authority.
  2. Be Accurate: Accuracy establishes credibility. Overly technical language can frustrate and confuse readers, so use plain language to explain the situation. Express what information is known, unknown, and what is being done to fill the gaps.
  3. Be Credible: Speak honestly and truthfully. Communicating with transparency and accuracy will make you a trusted source of information. 
  4. Be Empathetic: Messaging should speak to all the needs of the affected community. Use words and body language that promote understanding and compassion for the harm that the issue may have caused.
  5. Promote Action: People want to know how they can lessen their exposure to contaminants in a practical way and what you, the water provider, are doing to rectify the situation. Detailing the next steps in a situation is comforting, and action points can help provide purpose in times of uncertainty.
  6. Show Respect: Attempts to over-reassure or suppress information often cause more harm than good. The best way to show respect in messaging about water quality risks is to be open and candid.

If news and/or social media run with the story before your agency can issue a statement, the best thing to do is respond directly as soon as possible. Issue correct information to establish credibility while showing empathy and respect and outline a plan of action. Ensure that quality information is available wherever people will look for it, but don't engage with Internet trolls or troublemakers to extend negative aspects of the situation.

Use plain language and give context

Non-technical audiences may need to learn what 1,4-dioxane is when they first hear of it. Respectfully explain the situation and contaminant. Providing context to advanced terminology using plain language is an opportunity to diffuse heightened tensions. Communications experts, for example, advise that technical terms like "endocrine disruptors" should be avoided, as they are unfamiliar to the public. A way to say this using plain language would be "natural or man-made chemicals that could interfere with the body's hormones."

1,4-dioxane is a chemical that has been made since the 1950s. The chemical first appeared as a way to make sure other chemicals work properly in factories. Over time, it found its way into things like medicines, plastics, and everyday items like shampoos and detergents. Because it could be harmful to health and the environment, there's been a decrease in the making and using of 1,4-dioxane.

1,4-dioxane does not decompose easily and is widely distributed. Its ability to dissolve in water has led it to be found in water sources across 45 states and the air we breathe. When consumed, it affects organs such as the nose and the liver and presents a cancer risk.

Providing context in messaging about potential risks can ease concerns surrounding a water quality incident. For example, instead of expressing risk in "one in a million" terms, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) suggests reframing it in a relatable way to the public, like how many glasses of water someone would have to drink per day to be affected by the contaminant.

Addressing Public Concerns with a Transparent Action Plan

Proactively crafting a public communications strategy before a contamination event allows water providers to control the narrative and put their ratepayers at ease to avoid unnecessary concerns. Following the steps provided by the CDC, water providers can know they are prepared to communicate contamination action plans to the public to maintain trust and block other parties from derailing the flow of accurate information.

However, communication is only one key factor in managing water contamination. Once water utilities communicate their plan of action to the public, the economic pressure from contamination clean-up and treatment can disrupt ratepayer trust and cause further frustration. As utilities face water contamination, finding the resources to implement the plan of action can feel overwhelming. Relying on water contamination experts, like consulting engineers and contamination litigators, can be a way to manage the workload and effectively navigate the situation.

There are a few routes for water agencies to tackle contamination of their water source, one of them being legal action to recover clean-up costs by holding corporate polluters accountable. If you are weighing your options and looking for advice on how to proceed, contact SL Environmental for a free consultation about 1,4-dioxane contamination in your drinking water system.