Ask a Best Doc: How Safe Is NYC’s Drinking Water With All the Talk of Fracking?

Water drips from a bathroom tap January 12, 2007 in Berlin, Germany.
Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Q: With all this talk about fracking, how safe is NYC’s water, really?

A: Pretty darn safe, at least for now. And tasty too. New York City’s pristine drinking water “is supposed to be some of the best in the country,” says occupational medicine specialist Marc Wilkenfeld, M.D., director of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola. “It comes from upstate and is transported from 100 miles away. The city also has a program in which they regularly monitor bacteria levels in the water.” Unlike groundwater, “which can be contaminated by industrial processes,” says Wilkenfeld, this river of clear, healthy H20 streams down to us from reservoirs in Putnam and Westchester counties and the Catskills. For now, the biggest threat to your glass of tap water is probably the janky old pipes in your oh-so-charming prewar brownstone. “Lead is the most common reason that you run into a water problem in New York,” says Dr. Wilkenfeld. He doesn’t recommend testing your water, since results can be inconclusive, but if you live in an old building that doesn’t have updated plumbing, he does suggest just letting the water run for 30 seconds before using it. “Most of the released material will be in the very beginning when you turn the water on,” he explains. You can also get a simple faucet filter or invest in a fridge with a filtered water system built in, he says.

There’s potential for a more serious threat on the horizon, however. As you may have read, Governor Cuomo is considering lifting, or partially lifting, New York State’s ban on fracking — a process that uses a mix of chemicals (some of them known carcinogens) and pressurized water to shatter rocks far beneath the ground and release valuable natural gas. Some say that fracking, and possible chemical spills or contamination from drilling accidents, could infect our deliciously drinkable water. The possibility that fracking isn’t as safe as proponents claim concerns our good doctor, who’s treated many first responders who are now ill after their work at the World Trade Center site in the days after 9/11 and noted that they were told their work was “safe” as well. “The companies that do the fracking, under the law right now they don’t have to disclose what chemicals they’re using. It’s being called a ‘trade secret,’” says Dr. Wilkenfeld. “But instead of years from now perhaps seeing the problems potentially created by these chemicals, it’s better to see it up front. There’s economic pressure to allow fracking. There’s an argument for whether it’s necessary to keep the economy afloat. But from a medical perspective, we need to know exactly what the chemicals are, and we need some population studies in areas where fracking is being performed [to see how the people fare]. Things take time to develop, particularly with certain diseases.”

Ask a Best Doc: How Safe Is NYC’s Water?