By George Harvey
In 2014, Michael Hickey had recently lost his father and a teacher to cancer, and he wanted to understand why. He did a web search on cancer and the name of a product his father had made in a chemical plant, Teflon®. It only took about five minutes to find the connection. It was PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid, which is used to make Teflon®.
Molecules of PFOA have eight carbon atoms in a row, with fluorine atoms attached to all but one. The last carbon atom at one end has two oxygen atoms attached, one of which is also bonded to a hydrogen atom. There are other, related compounds with similar structures and properties, including one called PFOS.
PFOA is toxic to humans and animals. It causes cancer of the kidneys, liver, and testicles. It causes thyroid and liver problems. It leads to genetic and developmental issues. One of its worst characteristics is any amount that is released is permanently present in the environment, because it does not degrade and is not subject to natural sequestration. In other words, as long as it is being manufactured, it only builds up in nature.
It took some work for Michael Hickey to find out whether there was PFOA in the drinking water in Hoosick Falls, where he and his father had lived. There are few laboratories prepared to test for it, and the tests are expensive. Nevertheless, he found a lab and paid several hundred dollars to have the water tested. The level in the town’s drinking water was excessive.
We might think the issue would end, once he could go to the health authorities with proof of a problem, but that is not the case. The municipalities are dependent on the New York State Department of Health, which is dependent for its science on the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But that is where things get tricky; the EPA had never determined safe limits for PFOA. This meant that, like it or not, many officials were stuck with having to treat PFOA almost as though it were safe.
Unfortunately, we now get to the really hard part. PFOA is virtually everywhere. It can spread in ground water, but it can also spread in the air. While it can be found in excessive amounts in the municipal water in some communities, it can be found in even greater amounts in some private wells. We have been told that the municipal water in North Bennington, Vermont, has low levels of PFOA, but many homeowners’ wells have high levels. And as long as it is manufactured, the levels will only grow higher.
While PFOA is used to manufacture Teflon®, it can also be the end result of other products breaking down. One of these is used in bags for microwave popcorn, others are used in candy wrappers, and pizza boxes often are coated with such materials.
PFOA is often worst around the plants where it is manufactured or used, but it can become widely spread around those areas. It can become concentrated in animals and plants that grow locally, and as they are used, compost made from the waste can become fertilizer for other, more distant, fields. PFOA that gets into the environment around a factory in Indiana could wind up on a farm in Wisconsin, where it is consumed by cattle that produce milk for families in Illinois, or which are used for meat sold in New York.
About 98% of Americans have detectable traces in their blood, mostly at levels not considered dangerous. The level of PFOA in the blood is typically about 100 times as great as whatever level is in the drinking water, which means that to be safe, the levels in the water must be kept low. Since PFOA does not appear naturally, all of the pollution was produced industrially.
Proving that the PFOA was in the drinking water was only the beginning of a monumental effort by Michael Hickey. It took a year just to get some traction on moving governmental agencies to act on this toxic substance. It was a year in which Hoosick Falls continued to deliver water with PFOA in it, and local people continued to drink it. Dr. Marcus Martinez, a local physician who had noticed elevated levels of cancer in the area, said, “I do believe our citizens were advised incorrectly to consume water that was unsafe for at least for 12 months.”
Changes have come. In May of 2016, the EPA finally issued advisories on the limits for PFOA, at 70 parts per trillion. This meant that state and local governments finally had numbers they could use, and they could advise people on the safety of the water they drank.
This year, the state of New York got a new law making it easier for residents to sue over PFOA. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International have been identified as the companies responsible for the water problems in Hoosick Falls. Attorneys Weitz and Luxenberg are working on a class action lawsuit. Erin Brockovich, the famous environmental advocate, went to Hoosick Falls to help publicize the matter, so everyone knew how to become active in protecting his or her health.
As all this developed, the situation with drinking water in Hoosick Falls has improved. Early on, free bottled drinking water was being distributed to all residents. Though one manufacturer of household filters told us their products should not be relied on to remove PFOA, it can be removed by special filtration, and the town water once again has low levels of the chemical. The EPA has proposed making the town a superfund site, making it eligible for aid from the federal government.
Hoosick Falls resident Michael Bailey, a member of the board of trustees for SolarFest, told us the thing that bothers him most about the problem is that the situation in the town is just a small part of a much bigger problem. It is not just that there are many towns and cities with this problem, many worse than Hoosick Falls, it is not just that there are very few laboratories that can test for PFOA and that the tests are expensive. “There are 80,000 chemicals we don’t have tests or standards for,” Bailey said. Many of them might be just as bad, or worse.
Perhaps we should be thinking about a better system, one in which human beings come first.