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Presbyterian Church water contaminated — high nitrate levels discovered

Shelter Island Town’s Senior Nutrition Program is in jeopardy because of high nitrate levels in the drinking water at the Presbyterian Church where the program serves meals twice a week.

Karin Bennett, who oversees the town’s program, is working with town and county officials to try to remedy the problem, which could involve relocating a well providing water to the church, along with other initiatives.

In line with instructions from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, signs in the building warn against drinking water from faucets.

In addition to the nutrition program, the church also houses a private preschool program, the Shelter Island Early Learning Center, for children 2 and 3 years old. It is also a center for many Shelter Island activities, including concerts and other programs provided by the Presbyterian congregation.

According to numbers furnished by the county health department, water tested in the first quarter of 2018 exceeded the allowable 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter, testing at 10.3 mg. In the third quarter, nitrate levels were at 14.9 mg. and the number in the fourth quarter was 16.3 mg.

Nitrates are called a “tier 1 contaminant,” which means that test results of elevated levels must be posted within 24 hours of the findings.

Ingesting water with nitrate levels above 10 mg. per liter is dangerous for infants 6 months old or younger. Infants who drink the water could become seriously ill and, if untreated, could die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and “blue baby syndrome,” according to the department of health.

Juice and formula for children under 6 month should also not be prepared with the tap water; parents are advised to use bottled water.

Boiling, freezing or filtering the water does not alleviate the problem, and excessive boiling can make the nitrates more concentrated, according to the health department statement. Adults and children older than 6 months can drink the tap water, but pregnant women or people with specific health concerns are advised to consult their doctors.

Town Engineer John Cronin was first notified of the problem by Ms. Bennett this month, but it didn’t surprise him.  A study conducted by a summer intern had shown nitrogen levels in water in the Center to be high.

Mr. Cronin noted the elevated level of nitrates in the area is why a project is underway to improve drinking water at the American Legion Post and Shelter Island School.

The school has its drinking water tested regularly and has been able to source water from another well, Mr. Cronin said. But the process of installing a nitrogen reducing system to serve both buildings is vital, he added.

Correcting the problem at the church is complicated, Mr. Cronin said. A short-term fix could involve installing reverse osmosis units — technology that incorporates a semipermeable membrane to purify water — in some parts of the building.

But a short-term solution is just that, he said. It could take several months of treatment and possible installation of a new well to provide clean water to the church building.

Ms. Bennett said the county health department has notified the town that it must submit a compliance schedule to install a nitrate treatment and disinfection system by November 30.

Meanwhile, everyone using the building is being warned not to drink tap water.