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The legacy of PFOA: Learning to live with poisoned water

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The legacy of PFOA: Learning to live with poisoned water

photos by Leif Zurmuhlen

We tend to see water as clean and clear and pure–whether it’s rushing down a mountain stream or flowing out of our kitchen tap. To learn something invisible and potentially cancer-causing is in the water you drink, the water your kids drink, and has likely been there for decades? It’s a punch in the gut.

That’s how residents of Hoosick Falls have felt for a little more than a year now. Their pride in the village’s picturesque historic district and the town’s pastoral setting has been tainted along with their trust in regulatory agencies and public officials. Not to mention the gripping fear of the health damage done.

Michelle Baker, who lives outside the village limits, attended a rally at the New York State Capitol in November 2016–the one-year anniversary of when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first warned the Village of Hoosick Falls to issue a do-not-drink order. Rally participants were expressing their pent-up frustration with regulators and lawmakers for a year of misinformation, too-slow progress and worry.

“We are nothing but soccer moms and homemakers,” Baker says. “We don’t care about ourselves, we care about our kids.”

When the do-not-drink order became official in December 2015, Baker thought she was in the clear because her water comes from a private well. She was affected nonetheless; the village’s troubles were preventing her from refinancing her mortgage. The bank was not making loans because of the contamination of the municipal water supply. Baker set out to prove her water was OK, but testing revealed that her well was contaminated with PFOA, the same chemical that was bedeviling the village.

Her first reaction was denial. “I said, ‘No! You have the wrong house!’”

Next came shock. “It was like the world stopped,” she says.

Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA for short, is used in manufacturing to make heat-resistant wiring, stain-resistant fabrics, and nonstick coatings such as Teflon. (It’s sometimes referred to as the Teflon toxin.) The chemical had been used at the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant in Hoosick Falls. It has been linked to cancer, particularly cancers of the kidney and the testes.

Indeed it was a local resident whose father died of kidney cancer who first identified the pollutant in village water. In August 2014, Michael Hickey tested his home’s water and found PFOA, at a level of 540 parts per trillion (ppt), well above the 400 ppt guideline set by the EPA.

PFOA is officially an unregulated contaminant–meaning water utilities are not required to test for it–and in 2014 the EPA did not have a scientifically based safe level. The 400 ppt benchmark was an advisory, a guess until more information and more analysis could be done. In June 2016, the EPA revised their determination and lowered the safe level of PFOA to 70 ppt.

Village residents learned about the pollutant in their water from notes in their water bills, worried neighbors, and news from village board meetings. But the information was vague and confusing.

The confusion came to a head in mid-December 2015. Public meetings and fact sheets from different regulatory agencies showed a glaring lack of consensus about the risks posed by PFOA to residents’ health and safety. The EPA recommended that water customers stop drinking or cooking with their water; the New York State Department of Health distributed a fact sheet that said: “health effects are not expected to occur from normal use of the water,” and the mayor stated it was a “personal decision” whether or not to drink the water.

On Dec. 18, 2015, the mayor and the NYS DOH changed their stance and the water customers received a copy of the EPA’s recommendation to stop drinking or cooking with municipal water.

But here’s the thing. Village and county officials had known about the tainted water supply for over a year. After Michael Hickey’s discovery, they proceeded to do additional water sampling, which revealed widespread contamination in November 2014.

Village officials focused on a fix. They researched water treatment options that would capture PFOA and they explored ways to fund such an upgrade. They did next to nothing with regard to protecting the health of its residents. Granted, they were presented with conflicting information from various local and state agencies, but they did not err on the side of caution.

“My big frustration is with state and local officials,” says resident Michelle O’Leary. “Why didn’t anyone say: ‘Caution!’–rather than: ‘It’s OK, until we find out differently.’”

O’Leary is particularly vexed by what she sees as a political game of back and forth. The EPA says one thing, the mayor says another. “It’s not a game to us. It’s our everyday life. We wake up, wash our hands, take a shower. It’s our life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Resident Jennifer Plouffe wonders if village officials were overly influenced by a recent initiative called “Hoosick Rising,” A far-reaching economic development plan to attract new business to the region, especially in the areas of tourism, technology, and media. She wonders if planners thought they could fix the water problem before the potentially harmful news got out. “It was terrible timing,” Plouffe says.

Indeed, a Times Union article from Dec. 14, 2015 reported as much. The Village Mayor David Borge told Hickey he was worried about the stigma of polluted water on the village’s revitalization efforts.

Plouffe knows bad timing. She had moved back to upstate New York in the fall of 2015 after two decades away. She settled on Hoosick Falls and became a first-time home owner on Nov. 10. The very next day, she got disturbing news from her parents, who live in nearby Petersburgh. “My mom had heard some mutterings about unregulated contaminants in the water,” Plouffe says, who learned that notices had previously been sent out with the quarterly water bill.

Plouffe called the man from whom she’d bought her home, but he said he hadn’t known about the problem and never read the notices that came with his water bills. Neither the realtor nor the real estate lawyer said anything.

Plouffe bought her home before the official do-not-drink order came, but she took precautions anyway. “I hauled water from my parents’ well in Petersburgh for my animals. I bought bottled water for my housemate and I to drink.”

At the December meeting she attended, Plouffe was struck by the mayor’s comment about it being a personal decision to drink the water. “He seemed very blase,” she says. “It was very confusing. I only learned later that there had been a back and forth with the EPA.”

When the do-not-drink order came, Plouffe drastically reduced how often she showered, taking sponge baths in between. The EPA warning said that inhalation of contaminated steam or skin contact are not likely exposure concerns, but many village residents were not taking any chances. Plouffe’s bathing habits were typical–infrequent showers that were short, lukewarm, and taken with the windows wide open.

By the time Baker learned that her well water was also contaminated, she been hosting her daughter’s junior high school friends for the luxury of long hot showers. She was unnerved that she had unwittingly jeopardized the young people in this way.

Some folks battled a sense of powerlessness by taking action. O’Leary was new to town–like Plouffe, she purchased a house in the fall of 2015. She recalls an ironic factoid from her research on communities–one that needles her to this day–claiming that Rensselaer County has the best water in New York State.

Soon after her family moved in, a neighbor warned O’Leary about the water. “I did some digging and learned that PFOA had been found in Hoosick Falls. But I couldn’t find anything concrete.”

Once the do-not-drink order was issued, O’Leary jumped into action. “The state provided bottled water, available for pickup at the grocery store,” she says. (Saint-Gobain helped fund the effort.) “I initiated a water delivery service.” She was worried about people who might not know about the water problem and those for whom driving to the Tops Market might be a burden. She organized a meeting at a local church, worked with the senior center, and recruited other volunteers.

For her, the call to action was a way to deal with the gut-wrenching fact that her two kids had been drinking contaminated water for months. “It was a crash course in Hoosick Falls. I learned my way around and met lots of people,” O’Leary says.

Not only did she distribute water–the initial allotment was five gallons a day per household–but also she dispensed information. “Some folks had no clue, such as the 86-year-old man who was still drinking his tap water. Landlords were not relaying the information to their tenants,” she says. “It’s a huge failure of local and state officials.”

In the year that’s passed, the municipal water treatment plant has been fitted with a carbon filter system that removes PFOA. But the geographic range of the contamination has widened, affecting the communities of Petersburgh N.Y. and Bennington, Vt.

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Plouffe says PFOA was found in her parents’ well water–the very source she had relied on in the early days.

And the number of contaminants has increased. The EPA has proposed making the Saint Gobain plant a federal superfund site. In doing so, a listing of other toxins have been found in groundwater near the plant and in the public water supply, including vinyl chloride and 1,2-dichloroethane. Plouffe still refuses to drink the village water, though she is showering more. “The temporary filtration system is suppose to take out the PFOA,” she says. “But what about the other contaminants?”

Many more questions dog Hoosick Falls residents. No one knows how long their water been tainted with PFOA. Twenty years? Thirty?

The story of water contamination in Hoosick Falls in one of uncertainty, a situation beyond one’s control, a precariousness that breeds worry and mistrust. There’s plenty of suspicion that the exposure is related to an apparently high rate of cancers in region.

Every symptom and illness starts to become suspect. O’Leary’s dog has cancer. Family members have frequent nosebleeds. “It is coincidental? Maybe. I don’t know. But I worry about everything.”

Baker tries not to dwell on the years her daughter has been drinking PFOA-laced water. Rather she puts her energies towards crusading for solutions and change. “We still have no clean water source, no alternate water source,” Baker says. “We don’t have biomonitoring–only a one-time blood test. There’s no transparency from government; we have to FOIA our own stuff.”

Plouffe says she will continue to be an advocate for the residents of Hoosick Falls–and for herself. “I would like to see these chemicals be regulated and tested for in areas with manufacturing. It’s so neglectful to bury your head in the sand about this.”

“New York State has failed us immensely,” O’Leary says. “Who do you turn to if the people who are supposed to be responsible aren’t doing their best for us?”

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