Concern Grows Over Tainted Drinking Water
Vermont, New Hampshire and New York expand efforts to find out how much of a potentially toxic chemical is in drinking water
-by Cameron McWhirter and Jon Kamp, originally posted on April 25, 2016
Officials in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York are expanding their efforts to find out how much of a potentially toxic chemical ended up in drinking water, from private wells to public water systems.
Factories for decades used the chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, as a plastic coating and to make consumer products such as Teflon nonstick pans, waterproof jackets and pizza boxes.
Public concern over PFOA has spread through upstate New York and New England since August 2014, when a resident of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., near the Vermont border, tested his drinking water and found high levels of the acid. The man was concerned because his father, a former employee of the town’s plastics plant that used PFOA, died of cancer.
Earlier this month, roughly 200 people crowded into a high school auditorium in Litchfield, N.H., to hear from New Hampshire environmental officials. Attendees voiced concerns about PFOA’s possible effects on children, pets and garden produce.
The worry stems from a Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. plant in neighboring Merrimack, which New Hampshire officials are investigating as a possible source of PFOA contamination. The state in March sampled PFOA levels up to 620 parts per trillion in private Litchfield wells, well above the 100-parts-per-trillion level at which New Hampshire officials start to consider the amount unsafe. Tests in Merrimack measured as high as 1,600 parts per trillion.
Shawn Dalton, a retired 64-year-old, told the group that the drinking water from his home well tested positive for PFOA in March. “To me, the biggest problem is that nobody knows anything, and in a way we’re going to be the guinea pigs,” he said.
Nina Taliaferro said samples of water from her well showed PFOA contamination at 100 parts per trillion. The 32-year-old said she worries about possible exposure by her 8 1/2-month-old daughter.
New Hampshire officials have expanded testing of water samples near the plant, and announced that this week they plan to test soil at nearby sites like schools and playgrounds.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t declared PFOA harmful to humans, but it has raised concerns about the safety of the chemical in drinking water.
On Monday, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group that assesses chemicals in consumer products and the environment, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging the agency to set an enforceable drinking water standard for the chemical, and to force former manufacturers to disclose all sites in the U.S. where they used, made or dumped PFOA.
The nonprofit group said the findings of PFOA contamination have “gone from a regional problem to a national public health crisis that continues to widen, with no apparent end in sight.” The group, which has a history of battling with industry on environmental issues, has been raising health concerns about PFOA since 2002.
PFOA can be harmful to animals in high doses, causing tumors in the liver and other parts of the body, according to several scientific studies.
David Savitz, a vice president for research at Brown University, said his studies have found the chemical might cause “modest increases in disease” in humans, such as testicular cancer and hypertension in pregnant women. “We’re not talking about something that is an established, documented health hazard,” he said.
A multiyear medical study in the 2000s of 70,000 people near a DuPont plant in West Virginia that made PFOA, found “some suggestions” of “probable links” between high exposure to the chemical and some illnesses. The study was funded by a settlement between DuPont and plaintiffs suing the company over PFOA exposure, and both the plaintiffs and DuPont had to approve the study’s findings, said Mr. Savitz, who served on the study panel.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, a subsidiary of Saint-Gobain SA of France, operates the plants in Merrimack and Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and used to operate the plant in North Bennington, Vt. Since last year, state investigators have found PFOA contamination near all three sites, and they cited the plants as potential sources.
“Saint-Gobain is participating in several ongoing investigations—in all three states—to determine which party or parties may be responsible for the PFOA,” said spokeswoman Dina Pokedoff in an email.
New York state in February committed at least $10 million to clean up PFOA from drinking water in Hoosick Falls. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration in January declared PFOA a “hazardous substance,” and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation began conducting a statewide investigation to see if contamination extends beyond Hoosick Falls.
PFOA, which is highly resistant to water, solvents and acids, was invented in the 1940s. EPA officials assume its use in manufacturing has been widespread, and traces of the chemical have been found throughout most of the country and in many people’s blood.
Researchers have found high concentrations in drinking water near factories in states that include West Virginia.
Meantime, Vermont officials are testing water around the state after finding problems in two communities.
Vermont authorities have set a maximum drinking water limit of 20 parts per trillion, a standard that Saint-Gobain is challenging in court. The EPA plans to issue permanent health advisory limit sometime this spring, according to a spokeswoman.
“We’re confident we’re going to find how far-reaching the problem is and deal with it,” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said.
Meantime, American Financial Group Inc. unit APU, whose former subsidiary once owned a wire plant located near PFOA-contaminated water in Pownal, Vt., agreed to cover costs for water sampling, bottled water and filtration, Vermont officials said last week. Filtration systems for entire homes can cost several thousand dollars.