hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues July 2016


From water to blood

Anger, frustration grow as blood tests show hundreds with high levels of toxin in Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh

State tests this spring showed Emily Marpe of Petersburgh had the chemical PFOA in her blood at a concentration of 332 parts per billion, far above the typical background level of 2 ppb. Her 10-year-old daughter tested at 207 ppb, while her 15-year-old son had 103 ppb. The family’s well water is contaminated. George Bouret photosBy EVAN LAWRENCE
Contributing writer



State tests this spring showed Emily Marpe of Petersburgh had the chemical PFOA in her blood at a concentration of 332 parts per billion, far above the typical background level of 2 ppb. Her 10-year-old daughter tested at 207 ppb, while her 15-year-old son had 103 ppb. The family’s well water is contaminated. George Bouret photos

The grim results began arriving at the beginning of June: Tests confirmed hundreds of people in northeastern Rensselaer County, exposed to the toxic chemical PFOA through their drinking water, were carrying the substance in their blood at concentrations far above typical background levels.

Among more than 2,000 people tested earlier this year in the village of Hoosick Falls and the towns of Hoosick and Petersburgh, the state Department of Health reported a geometric mean of 23.5 parts per billion of PFOA in the blood samples it collected – more than 11 times the national average of 2.08 ppb.

And over the past month, many people have reported that their individual blood test results revealed much higher concentrations – some more than 400 ppb, a level more typical for factory workers with daily exposure to the chemical.

PFOA stands for perfluorooctanoic acid, an industrial chemical that was widely used in past decades in the manufacture of nonstick coatings such as Teflon and in a variety of other products. The chemical is classified as a likely carcinogen, and studies have linked PFOA exposure to testicular and kidney cancer, heart and thyroid disease, high cholesterol and other ailments.

Locally, PFOA contamination burst into the headlines late last year, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the village water in Hoosick Falls unsafe for drinking, cooking or even running a humidifier. Over the next few months, more contamination was found in municipal water supplies or private wells in three other area communities where factories had used PFOA – in Petersburgh and across the Vermont state line in North Bennington and Pownal.

In the past few months, Hoosick Falls has installed a new filtration system for its water system, which serves more than 4,000 customers. The state Department of Health says filtration is effectively removing PFOA contamination – and that the water is now safe to drink.

Hundreds of filters have been installed on tainted private wells outside the village. The two companies deemed responsible for the Hoosick Falls contamination have signed consent orders for cleaning up the pollution, and water system customers have received rebates for the months when the water was officially undrinkable.

State tests this spring showed Emily Marpe of Petersburgh had the chemical PFOA in her blood at a concentration of 332 parts per billion, far above the typical background level of 2 ppb. Her 10-year-old daughter tested at 207 ppb, while her 15-year-old son had 103 ppb. The family’s well water is contaminated. George Bouret photosBut the new blood-test results are adding to residents’ anger over what they see as a delayed, inadequate and sometimes deceptive state response to the water crisis. They’re worried about their and their families’ futures, and upset by the lack of answers about the extent of the contamination and the implications for their health.

“We still do not drink or cook with the water,” said Michelle O’Leary, who lives in Hoosick Falls and has helped organize a social media campaign to draw attention to residents’ plight. “We’re still using bottled water.”

She pointed out that for more than a year after a private citizen had samples of the village water tested in 2014 and found high concentrations of PFOA, the state Department of Health and village officials continued to insist the water was safe.

“The DOH told us the water was safe to drink, and two days later the EPA said no,” O’Leary said. “We don’t trust the DOH now.”


Fear of health risks
O’Leary, her husband, and their two children moved to Hoosick Falls in October. By then private tests had confirmed the presence of PFOA in the water system, and residents were demanding that the village declare the water unsafe. So even though O’Leary’s family installed their own filtration system, she said they never drank or cooked with the water.

When Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, whose local factories have been deemed the source of contamination in Hoosick Falls, offered to provide free bottled water through a local supermarket, O’Leary helped organize volunteers to deliver the water to shut-ins.
“It was my crash course in getting to know people here,” she said.

One of her clients was Loreen Hackett. When the DOH announced free tests to determine the level of PFOA in their blood, Hackett and her family took advantage of it. They were shocked by their results.

Hackett’s blood showed the chemical at a concentration of 266 ppb. Her daughter Nikki Aldrich’s reading was 63 ppb, her husband Josh’s was 68.2. Their 4-year-old daughter Alyssa came in at 117 ppb, and their 6-year-old son Corey at 142.

A Health Department report on the blood-testing results, issued June 2, noted that blood levels of PFOA only reflect a person’s history of exposure – and are not necessarily predictive of health problems. PFOA is known to bind to proteins in the blood, but how it triggers illness is unknown, the agency said.

Because of confidentiality requirements, those who were tested received only their own results, and the Health Department has not disclosed the precise range of blood concentrations of PFOA found in the tests.

But some people have opted to go public with their information.
(In Vermont, health officials have offered similar blood testing for PFOA in North Bennington and Pownal, but results of those tests aren’t expected until September.)


Finding strength in numbers
Last month, O’Leary and Hackett created a Facebook page, PFOAProjectNY, where people could post photos of themselves and compare their blood test results. Many people joined, 40 to 50 shared their numbers, and about 15 sent photos, O’Leary said. She and Hackett added a Twitter feed, @PFOAProjectNY.

“The goal is to put faces to the numbers,” O’Leary said. “We’re all guinea pigs and lab rats. We have questions, but no one can give us answers.”

O’Leary and her family were tested; perhaps because they never drank the Hoosick Falls water, their levels were below or just slightly above the national average. But many of her neighbors have been or are being treated for cancer, she said, or have lost pets to cancer and other ailments.

The Health Department says it is reviewing the state’s cancer registry from 1995 to 2013 to see if Hoosick Falls has unusually high cancer rates or unusual types of cancer.

Despite the state’s assurances of safety, people are afraid to go in their swimming pools or eat vegetables from their gardens, O’Leary said. A state promise to drain and refill private pools with fresh water was withdrawn, she said.

In January, the state declared Saint-Gobain’s two factories in the village a state Superfund site, allowing authorities to begin investigation and cleanup of PFOA contamination. A federal Superfund designation is pending.

The state is holding Saint-Gobain, and Honeywell International, the successor to another company that operated locally, responsible for contamination of the aquifer that supplies the village water system and area wells.

“We’re hoping to get a new water source,” O’Leary said. “We don’t know if that option is still on the table.”

State and local officials are researching a new source for the village water system, as well as the possibility of extending water lines to contaminated areas in the town of Hoosick.

“I hope it doesn’t kill the town,” O’Leary said of the Superfund designation. “The outcome for other towns with Superfund designations hasn’t been good. This is a really nice location, with nice people. We like it here. Except for the water, I have no other issues. I don’t want water to be a daily topic of conversation. It’s become a normal way of life that I don’t think should be normal.”


Making waves in Albany
Many of the people affected by PFOA have been calling for months for the state Legislature to hold hearings on the state’s response “to prevent this from happening to other people,” O’Leary said.

That call has been embraced by Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Schaghticoke, whose district includes Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh. McLaughlin held a press conference with local activists at his Albany office in mid-June, and at his suggestion, the group paid an impromptu visit to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and met with one of his aides.

But the area’s other representative in Albany, state Sen. Kathleen Marchione, R-Halfmoon, has so far declined to support local activists’ calls for legislative hearings.

In April, Marchione told Politico New York that she wanted to wait until the results of PFOA blood tests were available before deciding whether to support hearings.

“I want to hear what is happening with the Department of Health and the blood tests, which no results have come out yet,” she said then. “I want to go through that process and take a look, and then we’ll see whether or not there are hearings necessary.”

But after the blood test results came out, the Legislature ended its session in mid-June with no hearings planned.

In response to questions for this report, Marchione provided a written statement suggesting she might still support a legislative inquiry, which might prove embarrassing to the Cuomo administration.

“I have never said no to holding hearings,” she wrote. “In fact, we may very well hold hearings. To date, my focus has been on providing clean, potable water for my constituents. If there are hearings, I want them to be an honest search for answers about how we got here.”

Earlier this year, the chairmen of the environmental and health committees in the Democratic-led Assembly had said they would hold hearings on the Hoosick Falls water situation after April 1 state budget deadline. But both backed away from the idea after the new state budget was adopted.

That prompted McLaughlin to question whether the plan for hearings was traded away in the state’s complex budget negotiations – a suggestion Marchione termed “an absolutely ridiculous statement” in comments to Albany-area television station WTEN in April.

Marchione also drew sharp criticism from activists last month when, after supporting a bill to make it easier for people in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh to file lawsuits over water pollution, she abruptly amended the bill in a way that advocates and other lawmakers said would effectively kill it. Within 24 hours, after news stories spotlighted the change, Marchione withdrew her amendment and allowed the original bill to proceed to passage.


‘Our home is not a home’
Emily Marpe and her family moved to Petersburgh, the next town south of Hoosick Falls, in 2011. Their house is less than half a mile from the Taconic Plastics plant, which also makes Teflon-coated materials.

Taconic discovered 10 years ago that PFOA was in the groundwater under its plant and informed state and county officials, but officials did nothing until earlier this year, after the Hoosick Falls situation made headlines.

Testing showed PFOA in Petersburgh’s municipal water system. The chemical turned up in private wells too, including Marpe’s, which tested at 210 parts per trillion. She and her family had their blood levels checked by the DOH in Hoosick Falls.

“My blood level is 332 ppb,” Marpe said. “My daughter’s is 207. She’s only 10 years old.”
Her daughter’s father came in at 418, comparable to the blood levels found in workers at a Dupont factory in Parkersburg, W.Va., that manufactured the chemical.

Her 15-year-old son, who spends weekends out of town with his father, had the lowest blood level of PFOA in the family, at 103 ppb.

“I thought I was doing my kids the best thing imaginable by bringing them to a beautiful house in the country,” Marpe said. “Instead I was poisoning them.”

Marpe started studying PFOA on her own.

“I’ve read scientific studies,” she said. “It doesn’t help you sleep.”

Not satisfied with the water tests carried out by the Health Department, she ordered her own tests on the house’s well. In addition to the PFOA, two closely related chemicals showed up.
“Our home is not a home any more,” Marpe said. “We can’t trust the water here again.”

Although the EPA says PFOA is not absorbed through the skin, Marpe said her daughter would not even take a shower at home. She went to friends’ houses instead. On their own, Marpe’s children posted a “For Sale” sign at the bottom of their driveway.

Taconic Plastics is providing free bottled water for affected residents and will pay for filters for the town’s water system and contaminated private wells. For Marpe, that isn’t enough.

“The state says the filter is good to go, but my kids don’t want to touch” the water, she said. “And I don’t want them to.”

Marpe said she wants Taconic Plastics to buy her home.

Trace amounts of PFOA, 9.51 ppt according to Marpe, were found in the water at Berlin Elementary School, from which her daughter just graduated. The EPA and DOH recommend filtration for levels of 70 ppt and above.

Although the level is low, Marpe has asked the school board to get a filter.

“Some Petersburgh kids have already gotten PFCs,” the class of chemicals that includes PFOA, she said. “The kids who don’t have PFCs at home don’t need to get it at school.”

On the last day of June, Marchione’s office announced that the state would install a filter at the school. The state also announced that it would conduct blood screening for PFOA on Saturday, July 23, at the Petersburgh Community Center. (Previously, Petersburgh residents could be tested for exposure only by traveling to Hoosick Falls.)

Marpe said she has many questions, especially for Taconic Plastics, but can’t get answers. No one can say what the long-range health implications are for her or her family.
Once exposure stops, the body begins to clear PFOA on its own, reducing its load by half every two to four years. There’s no recommended treatment to speed the process.
“I’ll try to be proactive in screening for whatever you can to the extent of our insurance,” starting with thyroid screens, Marpe said. “It’s scary, especially with my daughter. I can’t stress that enough.”

Pursuing an alternative
Kim Knapp isn’t waiting for filters and new water sources. She and two friends, including O’Leary, have formed Indian Springs Water to make water from springs on her family’s land in the town of Hoosick available to people whose water has been contaminated with PFOA.

“We know we have good water,” Knapp said. “This is actually water that we drink. We had it tested twice by a hydrogeologist.”

It’s been certified PFOA-free, she said.

Knapp and her family make Hoosick Hickory products, condiments infused with shagbark hickory bark that they sell through area farmers markets and retail outlets. People who have tried samples of their water like it, she said.

But the plans of Knapp and her friends have hit a snag.

“The DOH wants us to add chemicals, like a public water supply,” Knapp said. “These are the rules and regulations of people who let people drink water with PFOA for a year and a half. We know our water is not going to make us sick.”

So for the time being, the spring water will be labeled as being for pets.

“I can’t even tell you how upsetting this is,” Knapp said. “You don’t know what will happen in the future. Will little kids be able to have kids? Will their kids be deformed?”