A coalition of people with backgrounds in public health, policy, and research is launching a new effort today to gather information from residents of communities affected by water contaminated with the chemical PFOA. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports the group is seeking input from residents across state lines.
PFOA, an odorless, tasteless chemical used in making non-stick and insulating materials, has been detected in a handful of Northeast communities over the last few years.
What began with one resident testing his own water in the summer of 2014 has evolved into multi-million dollar remediation efforts in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, in Rensselaer County, New York and nearby Bennington and North Bennington, Vermont.
As environmental and public health officials in both states negotiate with the companies accused of polluting the water supplies and conduct their own assessments, a group of advocates is stepping forward to get answers.
Former U.S. EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, a Rensselaer County resident and part of the new coalition, says a survey will be made available to residents of the affected communities past and present. And she said it’s looking for more information on health effects associated with PFOA, following a 2012 study done in Ohio and West Virginia.
“And that gold-plated multi-million dollar study found probable links with six diseases, and so those are the six specific diseases that we will be asking those past and current residents of these communities to self report, as part of this questionnaire,” said Enck.
Among health affects linked to PFOA are various forms of cancer, thyroid disease, and hypertension during pregnancy.
Enck, who served under President Obama and is now a regular commentator on WAMC, warned Hoosick Falls residents in late 2015 to not drink or cook with water from Hoosick Falls’ drinking water.
Since then, New York state expanded investigations of PFC contaminations from Hoosick Falls to nearby Petersburgh, and Newburgh in Orange County. Vermont began investigating pollution in the Bennington area.
David Bond has led research into PFOA contamination at Bennington College.
“Both New York and Vermont are beginning to move forward with remediation plans. Most houses and public water systems that were impacted now have filtration systems. So there’s a lot, moving forward, a lot of great work is being done,” said Bond. “But a number of residents of Vermont and New York still have difficult questions.”
Bond and Bennington students have already sought and researched questions submitted by neighbors, but there are plenty of unknowns. The communities still don’t have an idea of exactly how long residents have been exposed.
“In the end, we hope that the data we’ll gather through consulting with the communities will do two things: It will offer new clarity around emerging community health concerns and it will also give local knowledge of community health greater prominence in broader discussions,” said Bond.
Bennington College brought together people from New York and Vermont to share their experiences with contamination during a PFOA conference earlier this year.
Dr. Howard Freed, a former director of the New York Department of Health’s Center for Environmental Health, pointed out that New York, Vermont and the federal government all have their own health advisory levels for PFOA in drinking water.
Freed said it’s important to pay attention to how other states are approaching PFC pollution.
“By engaging with other states, there are other ways to approach the problem. And we don’t have the monopoly on all the good ideas here in New York,” said Freed.
New York state has conducted a review of the state cancer registry for current Hoosick Falls residents, but did not find significant evidence of higher cancer rates associated with PFOA exposure. Some residents took issue with the fact that the state’s assessment did not extend to people who have moved away.
The results of the new questionnaire will be shared with all.
“The information that we have and the work that we have done is all going to be public record. It’s all going to be transparent,” said Freed.
Paper copies will be made available at the public libraries in Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, and Bennington. It will also be posted online at Bennington College’s Understanding PFOA web page.