2023: Latex Polymer Spill in Philadelphia

What the chemical spill could mean for tap water

Philadelphia Chemical Spill Drinking Water FAQ 2023

An overview prepared for our internal teams at Tap Score & SimpleLab due to the overwhelming amount of questions we’ve received related to the situation in Philadelphia. 

Tap Score by SimpleLab specializes in testing drinking water. We advise on treatment but do not sell water treatment products, nor do we work as affiliates for treatment brands. 

There is ongoing uncertainty around the incident. 

Questions: Ask us on Instagram or email at hello@gosimplelab.com.

Table of Contents

    What was spilled? 

    On the evening of Friday March 24th, 2023, between 8,100 to 12,000 gallons of latex polymer chemicals were spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River at the Trinseo Altuglas chemical facility in Bristol Township. 

    The following chemicals were released:

    • Butyl acrylate

    • Ethyl acrylate

    • Methyl methacrylate

    There may be other chemicals associated with the latex polymer solution, but they have not been announced. These are industrial chemicals used to make products like PVC, rubber, paint, and other chemicals. They are all volatile, meaning they readily partition into the air, and are known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs

    You can be exposed to these chemicals via ingestion, dermal contact or inhalation. Exposure to high concentrations of any of these chemicals can cause adverse reactions including respiratory irritation, nausea, headache, etc., but these concentrations aren’t likely in drinking water.


    Will this spill affect my drinking water? 

    It is possible for the chemicals from the spill to get into the drinking water supply, either public utility water drawn from the Delaware River or wells in the area, but it is not a guarantee that drinking water will be impacted.

    Public health officials in Bucks County, the City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Water Department are monitoring the situation and providing updates to residents. Updates for customers can be found here, and residents can sign up for free alerts from the city by texting READYPHILA to 888-777 or by visiting the ReadyPhiladelphia signup page.

    It is NOT the case that all 2 million customers of the Philadelphia Water Department are at risk from this spill. The Delaware River, which was impacted by the spill, is a water source for only part of the water system—it feeds the Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant. 

    This map demonstrates which areas are at risk for potential impacts to drinking water (because their source is the Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant).

    Keep in mind that these chemicals are volatile so if they are present in your drinking water, you may be exposed to them not just by ingesting the contaminated water, but also by inhaling the vapors when cooking, doing dishes, bathing, etc.


    How concerned should I be about my health?

    The chemicals involved in the spill are hazardous to human health in both air and water, but the extent of the potential risk depends on the concentrations of the contaminants and the duration of the exposure. 

    If you get your drinking water from a private well, you are responsible for your own water quality. Pay attention to the news and any reports of contamination reaching groundwater nearby. We don’t know right now if these chemicals will make it into groundwater and, if they do, if they will reach water that supplies private wells.


    Are public utilities doing anything about this contamination?

    Yes. The Department of Environmental Protection, Aqua Pennsylvania, Lower Bucks Joint Municipal Authority, Philadelphia Water Department, and New Jersey American, among other city officials, are working together to monitor the spill. 


    I’m on public utility water, should I test my water? What should I test for?

    If you’re on public utility water you are not yet at high risk of health impacts because there are professional engineers who oversee your drinking water quality and treatment plant operations. Any risk to tap water will be communicated based on monitoring results. 

    These personnel have already been alerted to the spill and its potential risks. They are monitoring the raw water supply for indicators of dangerous concentrations of any of the contaminants. 

    SimpleLab does not currently test for the latex polymers spilled in the water supply. If you want to test your water for a broader suite of contaminants, we suggest the following:

    Advanced City Water Test Kit
    Tests for 109 analytes including VOCs (does not include the 3 spilled here)


    I’m on spring/well water, should I test my water? What should I test for? 

    You’re more likely to be at risk if you’re on private well water or spring water than if you’re on public tap water because there is no professional oversight of the water quality in your well. 

    However, it is currently unclear whether the spill will impact nearby wells.

    SimpleLab does not currently test for the latex polymers spilled in the water supply. If you want to test your water for broader contaminants, we suggest the following:

    Advanced Well Water Test Kit
    Tests for 60 different VOCs (does not include the 3 spilled here) plus 52 additional parameters, like heavy metals. 


    How often should I test?

    The truth is that we currently do not know. 

    If you’re on well water it’s important to test once or twice a year, regardless of nearby conditions. 

    However, in a situation like this one there are too many variables to give a strong recommendation for testing frequency. Make sure to pay attention to the news and, specifically, to reports about the results of local groundwater/surface water sampling campaigns so you know if contamination is detected in groundwater near you. If so, it is advisable to test your water right away.


    Referring to the originally spilled chemicals (VOCs):


    What can I do to remove these chemicals from my water? 

    Because these compounds are volatile, it is best to remove them from all of the water entering your house. This means treatment at the wellhead or point-of-entry is best

    Aeration and activated carbon treatment systems are recommended for reduction of volatile organic compounds, like those involved in the spill. 

    Multi-stage treatment systems may also include an activated carbon step—this is often the case for reverse osmosis systems, for example.


    Will boiling my water help?

    Boiling your water is not advised—volatile chemicals like those involved in this spill are released into the air when water is boiled and become inhalation hazards.


    Will distillation help?

    Distillation is not recommended—in general, distillation is not recommended for the removal of volatile organic compounds. If the target compounds have boiling points near that of water, distillation will not adequately remove them.


    Will my water softener help?

    A water softener will not remove these compounds from your drinking water. 

    The ion exchange technology used in water softeners is not effective for the removal of volatile organic compounds like those released in this spill.


    Will reverse osmosis help?

    It depends—small molecules with no charge, like some of those released in this spill–are not always removed well by reverse osmosis. However, RO may reduce some of the chemicals, it just depends on which ones end up in your water and the specifications of the RO system.

    Many RO systems come with an activated carbon filtration stage. This stage should take care of the VOCs. 


    Single water samples are for informational purposes only and not admissible in court. Typically for a sample to have any legal standing, courts will define the specifications/certifications required, and arrange a certified sampler to collect and transport the samples to the lab. It usually requires MANY samples (not just one).

    Tap Score by SimpleLab  specializes in testing drinking water.  We advise on treatment but do not sell water treatment products, nor do we work as affiliates for treatment brands. 

    There is ongoing uncertainty around the incident.

    Questions: Ask us on Instagram or email at hello@gosimplelab.com