A Closer Look At PFOA

Jan 21, 2016

Last week, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck warned residents of the small community to limit their use of the village water supply.

"Do not drink the water from the Hoosick Falls public water supply. Do not cook with water from the Hoosick Falls water supply."

The reason is the contamination of the Hoosick Falls water system with PFOA. During the summer of 2014, PFOA was found at levels of more than 600 parts per trillion (ppt) in the village water supply. EPA says people should not drink or use the water if PFOA is found at levels higher than 400 ppt.

PFOA was not manufactured in Hoosick Falls, but was a component of PTFE, which was used by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. In groundwater sampled from the Saint-Gobain facility on McCaffery Street, PFOA levels were found as high as 18,000 ppt.

How the chemical got into the water supply is unknown at this time. Intake wells for the water supply are located about 500 yards from Saint-Gobain facility on McCaffery Street.

A common PTFE-based formula is DuPont's Teflon, which is used in non-stick pots and pans.

PFOA is not naturally found in the environment. There's debate whether trace amounts of PFOA that may be found in cookware can cause any harm.  The eight companies that manufacture it reached an agreement with the EPA to eliminate the chemical from products by December 2015.

PFOA has been associated with several health impacts including kidney and testicular cancer, and effects on the liver, immune system and thyroid gland, among others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that small amounts of PFOA are found in 98 percent of the U.S. population. It also says measureable amounts of PFOA in the human body do not necessarily imply adverse health effects.

During last week's community forum, Environmental Toxicologist Dr. Robert Michaels, president of consulting firm RAM TRAC, showed several slides on the presence of the chemical in lab-tested animals. He said the chemical is easily absorbed in blood serum, the kidneys, and liver.

But he cautioned that there are plenty of unknowns in the Hoosick Falls case.

"What's relevant to the people in this community, is they've been living here for years and very well may have had exposure over a period of years, maybe over decades. We don't know."

Michaels explained that PFOA has a half-life of 4 years. The means, in order to be rid of 75 percent of PFOA, it would take 8 years.

A man-made chemical, PFOA is persistent. Dr. Eugene Madsen, from the Department of Microbiology at Cornell University, looked at the biodegradability of PFOA in a study published in the journal Chemosphere in 2010. 

"The chemical structure of PFOA was resistant and it remained intact in every test we conducted."

So, Madsen says, once the chemical is out there, it's going to be out there for a "long, long time."

EPA says the chemical can be filtered out of the water supply. Saint-Gobain is paying to install a temporary water filtration system expected to be in place by next month. A permanent filtration system is set to be installed on the village water system by October.