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


News & Issues September 2018


A closer look at a toxin’s trail

New studies find more cancer, wider contamination from PFOA


Judith Enck, a former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Bennington College professors Janet Foley and John Hultgren went door to door in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., to gather information for a community healh survey as they researched the effects of PFOA. David Bond photo/courtesy Bennington College


Contributing writer


Four years after area communities began discovering the industrial chemical PFOA in drinking water supplies, a pair of new studies suggests the pollution and its health effects are more widespread than previously known.

The two studies, released last month, detail the findings of environmental sampling, a door-to-door health survey and other field work undertaken by professors and students at Bennington College with the aid of other scientists and former government regulators in the region. The researchers focused on Bennington and two communities just across the New York state line -- Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh -- where PFOA-contaminated drinking water was discovered between 2014 and early 2016.

One study found more cases of PFOA-related illnesses in the region than had previously been documented – including a significantly higher incidence of certain cancers than had been estimated in a review New York state health officials completed last year.

The other study reveals what appears to be a plume of elevated PFOA levels in soils and surface waters downwind from a factory in North Bennington that released the chemical through airborne emissions before closing more than 15 years ago.

Both inquiries were undertaken as part of “Understanding PFOA,” a project of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. The project has been supported by two National Science Foundation grants.

David Bond, the center’s associate director, says the project’s findings show the need for stepped-up health monitoring and environmental testing in both New York and Vermont.
Saint-Gobain, the French corporation that owns the shuttered North Bennington factory and continues to operate a plant in Hoosick Falls that used PFOA, agreed last year to pay for municipal water line extensions to about 200 Bennington homes where PFOA was found in well water. In a settlement deal with Vermont officials, Saint-Gobain also agreed to pay for additional tests in another area, mainly east of Route 7A, where PFOA was found in private wells.
The company also paid for installation of a new filtration system for the village water system in Hoosick Falls and provided bottled water for village residents in 2015-16 until the new system was completed.

When contacted for this story, however, Saint-Gobain spokeswoman Dina Pokedoff issued a written statement questioning the “approach and methodology” used in the college’s new research, and she dismissed the suggestion that medical monitoring is needed.
“We believe the current body of reliable scientific data relating to PFOA does not demonstrate that PFOA causes adverse health effects in humans,” Pokedoff said.


Doubting New York’s conclusions
The synthetic chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, sometimes also known as C8 because of its chain of eight carbon atoms, was used for decades in a variety of industrial applications, including the manufacture of the nonstick coating Teflon.

Locally, PFOA was used at now-defunct ChemFab plants in Bennington and later North Bennington, the Taconic plastics plant in Petersburgh, and at two plants in Hoosick Falls: the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics facility on McCaffrey Street and a now-closed facility that was owned by Allied Signal and later Honeywell International. (Saint-Gobain also took over the ChemFab plant in North Bennington before closing it in 2002.)

Under an agreement reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006, the chemical industry phased out the production and use of PFOA over the next decade.
PFOA was first discovered in the village water supply in Hoosick Falls in 2014, initially through tests commissioned by a private citizen. Residents of the industrial village and the surrounding town of Hoosick have long complained of what they believed were abnormally high rates of cancer and other illnesses.

Blood testing undertaken by the state in 2016 found that many residents who drank water from the Hoosick Falls system or contaminated private wells in Hoosick and Petersburgh had PFOA levels in their blood far higher than the U.S. average.

Last year, the Health Department reviewed New York’s cancer registry for the years 1995-2014, for which electronic records were available. The registry sorts cancer diagnoses by the ZIP code where patients lived when diagnosed. For the Hoosick Falls postal zone, the registry showed 12 cases of kidney cancer and no cases of testicular cancer, compared to an expected rate of 13 kidney cancers and two testicular cancers. Based on these figures, state officials declared that the incidence of those cancers was no higher than average.

But Judith Enck, the former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency region that includes New York, said she thought that couldn’t be right. It was Enck who, in her role at EPA, had pushed the state Health Department to declare the village’s water unsafe to drink in late 2015 after local activists started demanding action. (State and local officials had insisted for more than a year that the village water was safe despite tests showing PFOA concentrations in excess of a since-lowered safety limit for drinking water.)

Enck, who returned home to Rensselaer County after the EPA leadership changed with the election of President Trump, was aware of the work being done by the Understanding PFOA project at Bennington College. Last summer, she said, she reached out to Bond as well as to Howard Freed, a physician and former director of the New York state Department of Health’s Center for Environmental Health, and Robert Chinery, an environmental engineer.
Enck proposed that they conduct their own survey of the health issues affecting local people exposed to PFOA. They were joined by Zeke Bernstein of Bennington College and David Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at SUNY Albany.
“We did it as a team,” Enck said. “Bennington College was really key. It did most of the work.”


Going door to door
The team drew up a questionnaire specifically for the three towns affected locally by PFOA contamination.

“It was based on the C8 study done 10 years ago in the Ohio River valley,” where residents sued DuPont Chemical for contaminating their water supply with PFOA, Enck said.

In that case, DuPont paid for an independent study of whether the contamination appeared to increase the risk of illnesses, and if so, which ones. Over eight years, 69,000 people were queried about their medical history.

“We were so fortunate that we had all this independent research,” Enck said.
The local questionnaire asked whether individuals had lived in Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh or Bennington and for how long, the source of their drinking water and how much PFOA it contained, whether anyone in the household had workplace exposure to PFOA, and whether individuals, members of their household, or extended family had been diagnosed with any of the six diseases linked to PFOA by the C8 study: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, ulcerative colitis, and high cholesterol.

The questionnaire also asked about deceased family members who had lived in the local communities.

Last fall and winter, Bennington College students and faculty and local volunteers took the questionnaires door to door in Hoosick Falls. Enck was one of the volunteers.
“Almost everyone was eager to talk,” she said. “They were well-informed.”

Paper copies of the questionnaire were available at local libraries, in newspapers, and at community gatherings, and a digital version was posted online. People in adjacent communities with contaminated wells were also encouraged to fill it out. The cutoff date for returning questionnaires was Feb. 28.

“We aimed to include as many people as we could who had been exposed to PFOA in our region,” Bond said.

Responses were carefully analyzed to eliminate duplicates as well as responses from people who had been diagnosed with the diseases before moving to the area. The researchers also tried to speak directly with all those who said they or a family member had been diagnosed with kidney or testicular cancer, to confirm the diagnosis, name, date and where they were living at the time.

“The results reflect the understanding residents shared with us, to the best of their knowledge,” Bond said.


A trail of illness
The survey team announced its findings last month at an Aug. 21 press conference. The survey received 443 unique responses: 373 from current and former Hoosick Falls residents, 87 from Bennington, and 43 from Petersburgh. (Sixty respondents had lived in more than one of the three communities.)

Of the respondents, 355 had lived in their community for more than 10 years, and 142 had PFOA water levels that tested above 400 parts per trillion – far above the EPA’s current safe drinking water limit of 70 ppt. (Vermont has set an even lower PFOA limit of 20 ppt.)

The results were sobering. Respondents reported 31 cases of kidney cancer, 17 of them in Hoosick Falls. (In contrast, last year’s state study had found only 12 kidney cancer cases in Hoosick Falls.)

Of the 11 cases of testicular cancer, nine were in Hoosick Falls residents, including four that were diagnosed during the time covered by the state’s cancer registry review. (The state had found no cases of testicular cancer in its review.)

“Every single one of the 42 cancer cases reported on the questionnaire recorded PFOA in water above the Vermont guidance level of 20 ppt,” the report noted.

There also were 231 cases of thyroid disease among the respondents, including 135 in Hoosick Falls, as well as 35 cases of pregnancy-induced hypertension, and 71 of ulcerative colitis.
Enck said the team decided not to count high cholesterol because it’s so common. New York hasn’t tracked diseases other than cancer, so it’s difficult to say if the incidence of the other illnesses other than cancer is higher than average.

The purpose of the Understanding PFOA survey was “not to determine rates of these illnesses but only to confirm incidents of them,” Bond said. “The cases identified stand at odds with previous reports, and warrant further study.”


Only a survey
The survey had its limits. Only 10 percent of the total population in the three communities participated. Enck said the actual number of PFOA-related illnesses could be much higher.
“It’s not an epidemiological study,” she said. “It’s a snapshot of self-reported illnesses.”

The next step is for the New York and Vermont state health departments to “do a more thorough review of health trends among the populations exposed to PFOA,” Bond said.

New York health officials have conducted their own survey, with more than 1,700 responses so far. Bond called on the state to release that data.

Bond and Enck also want both states to establish health monitoring funds.
“We’d like the health departments to regularly and proactively reach out to local health care professionals about using early detection strategies for exposed people,” Enck said.

“People need to know about the links” between PFOA exposure and illnesses, but people who might be at risk “shouldn’t bear sole responsibility” for health testing, she explained.

Screening tests for illnesses such as thyroid disease and kidney cancer are simple and can be done as part of a regular physical exam, “but there has to be a proactive strategy by the departments of health to make sure they happen,” Enck said.

Bond wrote that during the study, he had met people diagnosed with PFOA-associated cancers who were struggling to cope with family and work responsibilities, travel to distant clinics, grueling treatments, and rising medical bills. Some were working two jobs and running Internet fund-raising campaigns to pay for their care.

Although the Hoosick Falls plants that used PFOA have been declared federal Superfund sites, the laws governing these toxic sites “do not fully address health problems associated with the contamination,” he said.

“Victims of toxic pollution should never have to pay for their own medical care,” Bond wrote. “Polluters must be required to fund the new health care needs PFOA has introduced, including medical monitoring and a designated health care fund.”


A plume of contamination
The second study by the Understanding PFOA project looked at another question: How far has PFOA spread from the factories that used it?

PFOA was known to infiltrate ground water, but its presence in wells upstream and uphill from the factories suggested possible dispersal from smokestacks. The question loomed large in North Bennington, where the municipal water system was fine but PFOA contamination turned up in more than 200 private water wells, many at homes uphill from the former ChemFab plant.


The former ChemFab plant in North Bennington, Vt., is believed to be the source of PFOA contamination in the well water of at least 200 area homes. Photo by George Bouret:

In conjunction with testing of water wells around that plant, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation took 800 soil samples that found contamination in North Bennington and Bennington. There was evidence that airborne PFOA particles could travel much farther, including a study of airborne dispersal around a Saint-Gobain plant in Merrimack, N.H.
Bond and Tim Schroeder, a geology and earth sciences professor at Bennington College, decided to look for PFOA in soil and surface waters farther afield from local plants that used the chemical.

Bond and Schroeder set out to sample sites on a variety of terrain at different distances from the Hoosick Falls and North Bennington plants, on undisturbed land accessible by foot.
Bald Mountain, part of the Green Mountain National Forest, starts to rise about three and a half miles east of the North Bennington plant. Prevailing westerly winds would push any airborne emissions in its direction. Bond, Schroeder, and their students took 18 samples along the hiking trails that climb to the summit and continue into Woodford on the east. For comparison, they took another 18 samples in preserved forests farther north in Bennington County and in Washington County, N.Y., to the northwest.

They didn’t sample to the south because possible PFOA emissions from the Taconic plant in Petersburgh and an old industrial site in Pownal could have complicated the data.
“We wanted to understand the local problem in Bennington first before examining other possible sources,” Schroeder wrote. “We plan to sample there in the future.”

They released their findings in early August. In a guest essay published in the Bennington Banner, Bond, Schroeder, and Bennington College chemistry professor Janet Foley reported that they had found PFOA “everywhere in our region’s soils.”

But PFOA concentrations in the samples collected on Bald Mountain averaged 3.5 times higher than those found in areas not directly downwind of the plant. The three professors suggested that the emissions from the North Bennington plant may have been amplified by emissions from the Saint-Gobain plant in Hoosick Falls, which is about six miles farther upwind.

The result seems to be “a definable plume” of soil contamination that may cover up to 120 square miles -- an area larger than the city Boston, the researchers wrote.

But Pokedoff, the Saint-Gobain spokeswoman, pointed out that PFOA was used in making a variety of consumer products and suggested some contamination could have come from items discarded at landfills or elsewhere, including “carpeting, furniture, solutions used at carwashes, food wrappers, ski wax, outdoor gear and more.”


Assessing the risks
Richard Spiese, an environmental analyst at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said the state has done its own studies modeling contamination from airborne PFOA releases.

“We realized this was a possibility,” he said.
Spiese said the state now is conducting a study with the University of Vermont to establish statewide background levels for PFOA and will compare the data with the Bennington College study.

He noted that even the highest level of contamination in the Bennington study, 23 parts per billion, is well below the state’s safety limit of 300 ppb for PFOA in direct contact with soil.
“We’re fairly confident that no one’s at great risk from this,” he said.

At the same time, the scale of contamination means “it’s not like a normal hazardous waste site,” Spiese said. It’s not possible to collect and dispose of all the tainted soil. Instead, the state is working on extending municipal water lines to residential areas where private water wells are contaminated.

Produce grown in contaminated soil may take up some PFOA, especially if plants were watered from a contaminated well. Researchers at Williams College are looking into this, Spiese said.
However, “drinking water is the main route of exposure” to PFOA, he added. Levels of PFOA in fish taken from bodies of water around the North Bennington plant “were not at human health risk levels,” he said.

“Long term, PFOA will leach out of the system and clean itself up, but it may take decades,” Spiese said.

Schroeder wrote that the Understanding PFOA project will continue to explore the extent of the plume from airborne pollution, how PFOA is moving from the surface of the soil into groundwater and, in conjunction with the Vermont Geological Survey and other partners, how it is flowing through the groundwater.

North Bennington’s and Bennington’s municipal water sources appear safe for now, “but given the extensive nature of what we found in the soil, we can’t guarantee it,” he wrote. “We will know more after additional work.”

State and local authorities will need to continue to monitor the water systems and should have a plan in case PFOA shows up, he added.

Hoosick Falls’ municipal wells were contaminated by the Saint-Gobain and Honeywell plants nearby. Although officials say the village’s new filtration system removes PFOA before the water is piped to local homes and businesses, some believe the village needs a new, clean source of water.

“All efforts should be made to secure a non-contaminated water supply for the village of Hoosick Falls,” Schroeder wrote.

Saint-Gobain has contested Vermont state officials’ finding that the company has primary responsibility for the North Bennington situation. In a report compiled by its own consultants, the company claimed the area has a high background level of PFOA and that PFOA could be coming from a number of other sources, including the local landfill and local homes and businesses.

But the landfill, declared a Superfund site in 1989, was capped in 1999. And PFOA is an industrial chemical; in consumer products, it has shown up only in trace quantities.
Bond and Bennington College student Jorja Rose investigated the places that Saint-Gobain’s consultant said could be releasing PFOA. In an essay published in May in the Bennington Banner and the online news site VTDigger, Bond and Rose said homeowners and businesses denied using the chemical and said the company’s consultant had never contacted them.
Vermont is continuing to negotiate with Saint-Gobain over payment for extending water lines in the Bennington area and other issues.

“Any settlement with Saint-Gobain that does not address the legitimate health concerns of residents is an incomplete settlement,” Bond said.