Perspectives: 1,4-Dioxane in Acton Water

By Lucy Kirshner

A year ago, I passed a neighbor on the street who shared her anxiety. “There is poison in our water!” she began. “It’s 1,4-Dioxane and the town knows, but all they’re doing is diluting it, not removing it.” I had no words to respond. Even my internal conversation stuttered to silence. My ignorance about this toxin with its weird, numerically specialized scientific name threw me off. Why couldn’t the town do anything? What in the world was I supposed to do?

My neighbor’s anxiety was infectious. My initial reaction was to look for someone to blame. Who were the thoughtless chemists who polluted our water and why would our town send tainted water to our faucets? Who was going to solve the problem?

Before I could speak up to complain I had to overcome my ignorance. I had to learn where this chemical came from and how it got into our water. How might it poison us, and why can’t we get rid of it?

Since then I’ve been reading and working along with other like-minded folks in Acton. My learning began with a cartoon image of 1,4-Dioxane on Wikipedia: a ring of carbon and oxygen atoms decorated with hydrogen. The oxygen replaced carbon at spots 1 and 4. Aha! With that image I understood the numerals in the chemical’s scientific name. That didn’t help me much but it was just the start. [Editor’s Note: 1,4-Dioxane is also called simply “Dioxane” because the other Dioxane isomers are so rarely encountered; it should not be confused with “dioxin,” a different compound] I’ve moved on, struggling to grasp many esoteric reports of water chemistry and water treatment, knowing that every insight, no matter how small, adds to confidence in the opinions my understanding will inform.

I’ve read how, since the 1950s, thousands of tons of 1,4-Dioxane have been produced in this country and used in many ways in manufacturing. Most of it was used as an additive to stabilize corrosive chemicals so they could be stored in aluminum containers. 1,4-Dioxane has also been used as a solvent in many products, such as paints, deodorants, and detergents. It is commonly used in soaps and shampoos to make them foamy and less harsh. So, I wondered, how did this stuff find its way into our drinking water?

I could understand that decades ago manufacturing plants created dumps outside their plants for refuse. Some waste dumps contained significant amounts of 1,4-Dioxane. The chemical soup seeped into the ground where the Dioxane dissolved in water and flowed through the soil. And, of course, all of us who used products with 1,4-Dioxane also sent small amounts of that chemical into our own waste streams.

Once in the soil, Dioxane is not absorbed by dirt, nor does it accumulate in plants or animals, including us. It passes, dissolved in water, through bodies, through septic systems, through dirt and into the flow of groundwater, whereby diluted amounts of it can migrate into wells.

At first this information was reassuring. If this Dioxane is not absorbed and doesn’t build up in bodies and if it is diluted with the rest of the groundwater, why are we worried? More good news is that federal regulations have banned many uses of 1,4-Dioxane. Production has decreased. At this time it is the old chemical dumps that are the biggest sources of contamination. The bad news is that this is exactly Acton’s challenge: our most productive town wells sit downhill from two federal Superfund sites with waste dumps containing 1,4-Dioxane. Some of that Dioxane is traveling through the groundwater and reaching our wells.

Given our Town’s unusual situation, I looked more closely at research on human exposure to 1,4-Dioxane. I read that no human studies had demonstrated a health hazard from drinking water with this chemical in it. But, I also read that rats given water with significant levels had high rates of liver and kidney cancers. The United States Environmental Protection Agency calls it “a likely human carcinogen.” The literature went on to mention that the developing tissues of babies or fetuses could be more vulnerable. I stopped at the word “babies.”

I have two new grandchildren, born just this year, and the thought that their as-yet-unsullied bodies would be exposed to this chemical from my home’s faucets was unsettling. At our age, my husband and I seem beyond concern, but what about the tender bodies of my grandbabies, not to mention my trusting, eight-year-old granddaughter, who helps herself to water anytime she wants.

My next reaction was to stock up on bottled water. We’ve always had some on hand for guests wary about drinking water from faucets, but even as I lugged more big plastic bottles into our house I suspected that bottled water is not a solution. Bottled water is not tested for Dioxane, whereas the Acton Water District (which supplies our town’s water) does test for Dioxane and many other contaminants. Our district (AWD) posts metrics about water quality on its website, with explanations of what is being done about any particular contaminant. I felt a new appreciation for the straightforward transparency of the Acton Water District’s website, and so, began attending the open meetings of the district’s commissioners.

Through the Acton Water District I learned that it is only in the last decade that we’ve had the technology to measure low levels of 1,4-Dioxane in our drinking water and only now, when we can measure it, will we be able to study how that small amount might impact our health. My appreciation that our water is thoughtfully monitored for this chemical grew. At the same time, my concern grew — realizing that other contaminants, still unknown because of crude capacity to measure them, might be causing problems. What other stuff from waste dumps or from our septic systems should I be worrying about? There can’t be regulations to protect our water from toxins that can’t be measured.

As yet, there are no federal maximum contaminant levels for 1,4-Dioxane. It will take time to set such a standard. Massachusetts, being proactive, has established one of the most stringent guidelines in the country for this chemical, at the level of 0.3 micrograms per liter in drinking water. The Acton Water District had contributed data from our town to the state, thereby informing state policy. At the same time, the district considered what our town should do today. Levels of this chemical at some of our town’s wells are higher than the state’s guideline. Our water district decided to blend water from these wells with water from cleaner wells to dilute the amount of 1,4-Dioxane, thereby ensuring that levels in water provided to households are below the state guideline.

To learn whether the Superfund cleanup process will solve this problem, I attended a public meeting at the NMI Superfund site. I heard about “advanced oxidation techniques,” recently engineered procedures involving the addition of hydrogen peroxide and exposure to ultraviolet light in order to destroy 1,4-Dioxane. This approach could take decades and be very expensive, but it may, eventually, clean Acton’s water of this chemical, assuming the Superfund site remains active and supported financially.

After reading and worrying over 1,4-Dioxane, I lost interest in bottled water. For me, personally, monitored water from my faucet, polluted as it may be, is easier to swallow than the mystery packaged in a plastic bottle. There is always a temptation to believe the spring-fed promise of “pure” water coming from bottled water companies, but I will wait until I see their tested results posted.

Over the last year I have considered our town’s water with a new eye. I recognize that none of us, nor any bottling plant, will ever get new, clean water. The water we use today has been recycled through sewers and septic systems, evaporation, and rain. Hundreds of chemicals are in the mix, some dissolved out of bedrock, some, like Dioxane, having come with human manufacturing, some from residues of medicines we take, and some added for purifying. Though diluted, many chemicals will accumulate over time. The thought of our household adding to the mix still bothered me. My grandchildren have given me a responsibility to the distant future.

With the future in mind, I squinted at the ingredient labels on the shampoos in our house, and was initially relieved to see no 1,4-Dioxane in the long list of chemicals. Only then did I learn that you don’t find 1,4-Dioxane in most ingredient lists because other chemicals, commonly found in shampoos for example, react to create 1,4-Dioxane when combined in products.

It was from the large group of water-interested people I now know that I heard of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Its website directed me to specific guides for investigating products I use that contain 1,4-Dioxane. Thanks to the website, I have found a new shampoo. I’ve never given much thought to shampoos, but it pleases me to think that in this very small way I am protecting water for the distant future of my grandchildren.

Sixty-two years ago, today was considered the distant future. This year I was shocked to realize I had been present in the ’50s when Acton’s Dioxane problem began. In 1956 I came to Acton to visit my uncle, a passionate outdoorsman who taught me to appreciate the rivers, ponds, and oceans that he loved. My uncle was also an executive at the Dewey and Almy Chemical Company, then in our town. As I tagged along with my mother and uncle, touring his plant — later to become the WR Grace Superfund site — I recall feeling awed, and proud to be with him. He was in charge. I remember clearly how he bent down to speak directly to me, telling me that packaging corrosive substances was a big problem. “These liquids are so powerful they can eat right through aluminum drums,” he explained. He told me it was thanks to science and engineering that his company could solve this problem. Of course, the science he extolled led to the chemistry that now pollutes our wells.

I have struggled with the recognition of my uncle’s involvement in polluting our water. He was an executive at that chemical company, but he was not a thoughtless person and he truly admired the work his company was doing. In fact, I feel a poignant defense of his vision. He had a deep respect for science and technology in helping solve problems. Today, it is scientific studies and new technologies that will provide deeper understanding, and new ways to test and treat drinking water. Scientific research will study the impact that this chemical has on those who drink it in their water.

New, serious problems with water contamination are going to arise, and science will address those, as well. Today, however, I know that deep respect for science has to come with the recognition that science and engineering can have unintended consequences. We all have to remain skeptical and vigilant, and not delude ourselves that there are easy answers.

This year’s effort to explore the science of 1,4-Dioxane, along with a commitment to healthy skepticism, has turned my distrust into better understanding, leaving me with energy to recruit others to this charge. As I talk to neighbors and to my own family I will promote both the great values of science and technology, and the recognition that we have to keep ourselves informed. There is much that we have yet to learn. I’ll assure them that every one of us can help.

The Perspectives feature of the Green Acton website represents an opportunity for those affiliated with Green Acton to express opinions on topics or issues related to the organization’s mission. Opinions, ideas, and assertions that appear in the Perspectives feature do not represent Green Acton analyses, assertions, or positions. They express only the thoughts and opinions of the author(s). Comments are welcome. Find out more about Perspectives here.

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