Without Alabama’s help, no good way to find out personal exposure from water contamination

by David Kumbroch, originally posted on June 17, 2016


(WHNT) – There are no good options for people who want to know how severe their exposure is after water contamination in Lawrence and Morgan counties.

The West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority and West Lawrence Water Co-Op have said their water isn’t safe to drink, because of high levels of PFOA and PFOS, which exceed a new EPA advisory handed down in May. The chemicals have been linked to cancer and a number of other serious health ailments.

But there are few answers on how severe or lengthy the exposure was, which is especially important given that the chemicals build up in the blood over time. Blood tests could show individuals how much of the chemicals have stored up in their bodies, but without state intervention, they are prohibitively difficult and expensive to obtain.

You can get a sense for how the situation plays out by looking to other affected communities. Blood tests have riled the residents of Hoosick Falls, New York.

After it was determined area chemical companies had polluted village wells, they’ve learned PFOA isn’t just in their water.

It’s in their bodies; it’s in their families.

They rally at state buildings, trying to gain more support from New York’s government. It’s a familiar script since they discovered their drinking water was contaminated by the same substance that led the West Morgan East Lawrence Water Authority to tell its customers their water isn’t safe to drink.

David Engel, an environmental attorney who has pushed the Hoosick Falls situation through litigation tells us, “When the village became aware of the problem, the village first contacted the New York State Department of Health. And this was back in 2014. And to be blunt about it, the New York State Department of Public Health was not particularly helpful.”

Michael Hickey, a resident of Hoosick Falls, first discovered the contamination after his father passed away from kidney cancer, an ailment linked to PFOA exposure. He agrees, “I don’t think the New York State Department of Health really did a great job at all with trying to help us push this forward.”

The pair say they had to get the EPA involved to motivate state agencies.

Both agree, though, that the state health department offering blood tests to residents has been invaluable.

Hickey explains, “You know, I think it’s one thing when it’s in your water. But then when you actually realize that it’s in your blood, it’s a whole lot more personal.”

“People have a right to know what they’ve been exposed to,” Engel adds, “They have a right to know whether or not they may have an advanced chance of developing one of these horrible diseases or conditions.”

Perhaps most horrifying, Hickey says, “We’re seeing children’s blood come back as high as a 150 parts-per-billion. The national average is two parts-per-billion.”

But Engel does note of the all-important blood test, “It’s not the sort of blood work you get done when you go in for your routine physical.”

So how do you get it done?

We started making phone calls.

First, we tried eight different hospitals, from Huntsville, on west. Not one could tell us they could perform a blood test for PFOA.

So we tried the Morgan and Lawrence county health departments. Both quickly told us they couldn’t help.

We asked the folks from New York if the testing could have been done there without state intervention.

Hickey told us flatly, “No.”

He elaborates, “What’s happened here, too, is you’ve seen kind of people here, and that … moved out of town but had long-term exposure, they’ve gone to doctors to request the tests done at their offices. They’re being declined.”

Engel adds, “I don’t think you go into your doctor and go, ‘Hey, can you test me for PFOA?’ Because the normal lab that your doctor is going to send your blood to probably isn’t equipped to look for it.”

When we tried our state health department, the representative on the phone asked us, “Have you contacted your local doctor?”

Now, we did reach out to doctors and eventually were pointed to LabCorp. They have offices in Florence and Huntsville, they say they could conduct the two tests for PFOA and send them off. The tests cost $797 and $759, respectively.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama wouldn’t answer when we asked if insurance would cover any of that.

We have not found a single good option for people to understand their personal level of contamination.

But we have found people who can tell us how crucial that option is.

Hickey says, “The most important part about these blood tests are, if it’s found in your children at that age, there could be documentation to have the test to check for those related illnesses throughout the process.”

Michael Hickey’s father died from a PFOA related cancer. He wonders if the blood work would have allowed his family to spot it in stage one rather than the stage-four they found it in.

A spokesperson for the governor says he will consider asking the Alabama Department of Public Health to provide that blood testing.

She provided no details as to what would be considered to make that call.

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