Guidelines for Managing 1,4-Dioxane in Public Water Systems


Among the many water contaminants that hide in plain sight, 1,4-dioxane has emerged as a significant concern for public water systems nationwide. This synthetic chemical, often found in industrial solvents, has the potential to infiltrate water sources and pose a threat to the health and safety of communities. With attention surrounding 1,4-dioxane steadily increasing, water utilities and their directors can begin to proactively monitor, communicate, and treat this pervasive contaminant.

Recent contamination events, such as those in Seminole County, Florida, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, underscore the urgency of this issue. While the EPA has not yet ratified a 1,4-dioxane maximum contaminant limit (MCL), its recently updated risk evaluation provides valuable insights into the health risks posed by certain exposure thresholds. 

Drawing from our experience in widespread water contaminations, like PFAS, we'll delve into the essential guidelines for public water entities and hope to offer insights on how to approach the management of 1,4-dioxane contamination and provide valuable information to aid your community.

EPA Recommendations 

While the EPA has not published specific guidelines for 1,4-dioxane mitigation, its most recent risk evaluation shows that 1,4-dioxane poses an unreasonable health risk to the public. While health risks related to 1,4-dioxane depend on concentration and contact frequency, the following sections list how water providers can comprehensively manage any newfound water contamination effectively.

Monitoring and Sampling

We don't know what we don't know. This is why monitoring and sampling stand as the first line of defense in the fight against water contaminants like 1,4-dioxane. Monitoring and sampling not only serve to detect the presence of this synthetic chemical; they also give insight into its source, concentration, and distribution, which allows us to estimate the potential community impact and determine applicable solutions.

To get ahead of sensationalized headlines that ratepayers and municipal staff may read, SL Environmental recommends that forward-thinking utilities do a one-time 1,4-dioxane test along with their current sampling for state and EPA reporting. By confirming their drinking water's 1,4-dioxane concentrations, if any, water utilities can affordably determine what they're up against. If the 1,4-dioxane tests return as negative or negligible, communicating your findings to ratepayers can assuage public concerns and misconceptions.

For those who receive results that confirm 1,4-dioxane's presence in their drinking water, this proactive approach provides a data-driven foundation for crafting an action plan to protect public health and follow potential EPA or state 1,4-dioxane MCLs. For example, New York state has already established an MCL of 1 part per billion for their water providers. With this benchmark in mind, any utility can begin to prepare for managing their situation’s risk with appropriate treatment methods, resource allocation planning, and public communication SOPs. While it's important to note that states may have their own MCLs, including non-binding ones, examining existing MCLs can provide valuable insights into the limits a water provider may need to consider in good faith.

Risk Management

Risk management, especially when dealing with contaminants like 1,4-dioxane, is a multifaceted endeavor. This step involves identifying and understanding the contamination's implications, strategizing responses, and ensuring the community's safety.

The first step in effective risk management is determining 1,4-dioxane levels in the water supply. It's essential to remember that the risk associated with 1,4-dioxane isn't just about its presence but its concentration. Contaminant concentration can impact health differently, and understanding this nuance is crucial for informed decision-making.

There are several strategies that water utilities can employ to mitigate the impact of 1,4-dioxane contamination. These include:

  • Treatment: Integrating advanced treatment into your water treatment process, such as Advanced Oxidation Processes (AOPs) or Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filtration, has shown promise in removing 1,4-dioxane. Also, source remediation methods like bioremediation and dredging can mitigate exposure risk.
  • Source Control: Identifying and controlling contamination sources can prevent further spread. This might involve working with nearby industries or businesses that are discharging 1,4-dioxane.
  • Public Awareness: Educating the public about the risks of 1,4-dioxane, the steps your organization takes to manage them, and long-term strategies can foster trust and cooperation. It empowers the community to take personal precautions if needed. Pointing your ratepayers to at-home treatment solutions can also be a short-term solution to address health concerns.

Collaboration and Communication

Addressing the challenges posed by 1,4-dioxane contamination is more than a technical problem; it demands a unified solution that hinges on effective collaboration and communication.

In the complex landscape of water quality management, no entity stands alone. Collaboration between water utilities, local authorities, stakeholders, and other experts in the field is essential. Pooling resources, sharing knowledge, and brainstorming solutions can develop a more comprehensive and effective cleanup strategy. For instance, water utilities can collaborate with research institutions to explore advanced treatment methods or partner with local industries to reduce the release of 1,4-dioxane into the environment.

Ratepayers are also active stakeholders in the water supply. Engaging with the public, understanding their concerns, and involving them in decision-making can lead to more informed and accepted strategies. Town hall meetings, public forums, and feedback sessions can provide valuable insights and foster a sense of collective responsibility.

When communicating with ratepayers about potential water contamination, make known the presence of 1,4-dioxane, the associated risks, and the steps to address the issue. Regular updates, easy-to-understand reports, and open communication channels can ensure that everyone is on the same page. Moreover, transparent communication can help dispel misinformation, address concerns, and reinforce the utility's commitment to public safety.

In today's digital age, leveraging technology can enhance a water utility's ability to communicate and collaborate with ratepayers. Online platforms, social media channels, and mobile apps in congruence with traditional communication methods can be used to disseminate information, gather feedback, and engage with the community in real-time. By adopting modern communication tools, water utilities can ensure that they reach their audience and provide timely updates.

The ripple effect is profound when water utilities, local authorities, stakeholders, and the public come together. Collaborative efforts can lead to innovative solutions, a sense of shared responsibility, and a community united in its commitment to water quality and safety.

Taking Action: Safeguarding Public Water Supplies

In the face of emerging contaminants, timely attention and strategic action, as we've seen with PFAS, can make a significant difference in safeguarding public water supplies while managing the budget.

However, as regulations emerge and water utilities are finalizing treatment trains for contaminants like PFAS, they may subsequently be asked to treat 1,4-dioxane, which requires costly treatment methods that differ from other emerging contaminants. AOPs, bioremediation, and ion exchange (IX) treatments have shown great promise in effectively removing 1,4-dioxane from water sources.  But as regulatory pressure pushes water providers to invest in these additional treatment technologies, the capital cost may be too great to deliver clean drinking water.

With these constraints in mind, it's wise for utilities to start working on cost recovery and treatment solutions today. By doing so, when regulations come into effect, water providers will be better positioned to fund, design, and construct the water treatment solutions needed to distribute uncontaminated drinking water to their ratepayers.

Litigation can be a powerful tool in addressing cost recovery for water contamination. Water providers can recover costs associated with contamination management by identifying and holding responsible polluters accountable. This can ensure financial stability for the water utility and sends a strong message about the importance of industrial environmental responsibility.

Ultimately, being proactive in addressing potential water contaminants:

  • Attracts Business: Clean and safe water resources can attract new businesses, boosting the local economy and creating job opportunities.
  • Recovers Treatment Costs: Addressing contamination issues early on can lead to more efficient cost recovery. By identifying responsible polluters and litigating, utilities can recoup expenses related to contamination management.
  • Gains Public Trust: Demonstrating a proactive approach can foster trust within the community, reinforcing the utility's commitment to public safety.

Whether 1,4-dioxane will follow the same regulatory path as similar contaminants remains to be seen. However, some communities have already been obligated to invest in remediation and treatment, and many others may follow. Regardless of which treatment method is best for your water system, it will likely come with costs that you or your ratepayers may be forced to bear. If you suspect 1,4-dioxane has contaminated your water supply, it may make sense to explore whether litigation is the avenue to recoup some of those costs. SL Environmental focuses on contamination cases and works on a contingency fee, meaning your utility only incurs legal expenses once compensation is awarded. 

Contact the team at SL Environmental Law Group to learn more about proactive measures and strategies to address contamination in public water systems.