In this Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 photo, bottled water for distribution to town residents is piled up at the Petersburgh Municipal Complex in Petersburgh, N.Y. PFOA, long used in the manufacuring of Teflon pans, Gore-Tex jackets, ski wax, and many other products has turned up in the water in factory towns around the country like Petersburgh, impacting drinking water. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

In this Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 photo, bottled water for distribution to town residents is piled up at the Petersburgh Municipal Complex in Petersburgh, N.Y. PFOA, long used in the manufacuring of Teflon pans, Gore-Tex jackets, ski wax, and many other products has turned up in the water in factory towns around the country like Petersburgh, impacting drinking water. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Activists demand action against industrial chemical in water

ALBANY, N.Y. — Prized for its ability to make things super-slick, it was used for decades in the manufacture of Teflon pans, Gore-Tex jackets, ski wax, carpets and the linings of pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags.

Now, with the suspected cancer-causing chemical PFOA being phased out in the U.S., it is still very much around, turning up in the water in factory towns across the country — most recently in upstate New York and Vermont — where it is blamed by residents for cancers and other maladies.

The latest cases have brought renewed demands that the Environmental Protection Agency regulate PFOA the way it does arsenic, lead and dozens of other contaminants, and set stringent, enforceable limits on how much of the substance can be in drinking water.

“Where is the government that is supposed to protect people and the environment? It’s an outrage,” said Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which uncovered PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, in tap water in New Jersey a decade ago.

In their defense, EPA officials said that the agency has been considering for years whether regulations are needed for PFOA and related perfluorinated chemicals, but that it is a drawn-out testing and evaluation process dictated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In the meantime, the EPA has taken action around the country to fine companies and force them to clean up such chemicals.

For now, there are no mandatory limits on how much PFOA, also called C8, can be in drinking water. The same goes for its cousin perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, which is used in firefighting foam. The Pentagon is checking for traces of PFOS in the water at 664 U.S. military sites where fire or crash training has been conducted.

As part of its review of such chemicals, the EPA ordered nationwide testing of water supplies in 2013.

Of 4,764 water supplies, 103 systems in 29 states had trace amounts of PFOA, but none exceeded 400 parts per trillion, EPA’s advisory level for short-term exposure — water you drink for only a few weeks. Seven had levels slightly over 100 ppt, the new advisory level for long-term exposure — for the water you drink for years — that the EPA is expected to set this spring.

But the EPA’s national survey didn’t tell the whole story.

Towns the size of Hoosick Falls, New York, whose water supply serves just 4,500 people, weren’t included in the testing. Its PFOA level of 600 ppt was discovered in village wells in 2014 only because residents, concerned about what they perceived as a high cancer rate in the plastics factory town, demanded testing.

In January, after the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, focused national attention on water contamination, EPA and New York officials warned people in Hoosick Falls not to drink the water. The state is promising a new water supply with a price tag of $10 million.

More recently, testing turned up PFOA at about 100 ppt in drinking water in nearby Petersburgh, New York, and North Bennington, Vermont, which also had plastics plants. On Tuesday, Vermont officials said a second round of water testing in North Bennington yielded readings of up to 2,730 ppt.

Michael Hickey, a local insurance underwriter, exposed the contamination in Hoosick Falls, a bucolic community near the Vermont state line known as the hometown of folk artist Grandma Moses.

“My father died of kidney cancer. My grandmother had kidney cancer,” Hickey said. “My concern isn’t really about me; it’s about my 5-year-old son.”

At the least, health and environmental advocates say, communities that have factories and other installations that used the chemical should test their water.

“I would consider it an urgent priority to decrease exposures,” said Philippe Grandjean, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health who believes the 100 ppt safe-exposure level EPA is proposing is still 100 times too high.

Vermont health officials, for example, have set that state’s PFOA level at 20 ppt, based on the same research the EPA is relying on.

Class-action lawsuits have been filed as far back as 2001 against companies such as 3M and DuPont over PFOA contamination of water near factories or disposal sites in a host of communities, including Decatur, Alabama, and Cottage Grove, Minnesota.

In settling a lawsuit involving 70,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio, DuPont agreed in 2004 to install filters to remove PFOA from water systems in six communities surrounding its Parkersburg, West Virginia plant. In October, DuPont was found liable for a woman’s kidney cancer in the first of 3,500 lawsuits filed by people with diseases they blame on the contamination.

The American Water Works Association, a water industry group, believes that nationwide regulation of PFOA isn’t needed but that testing for the substance at manufacturing sites would be prudent, spokesman Greg Kail said.

Advanced filtration systems to remove PFOA can cost millions of dollars up front, plus tens of thousands a year in operating costs.

More in News

(Juneau E
Aurora forecast for the week of Nov. 27

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

A car drives by Mendenhall River Community School on Back Loop Road on Thursday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Woman, two children struck by vehicle while crossing road near Mendenhall River Community School

Victims in stable condition, initial investigation shows driver not at-fault, according to police.

“The Phantom of the Opera” is screened with a live musical soundtrack at the Gold Town Theater in April. Three of the musicians are scheduled to perform Sunday during two screenings of the 1928 silent film “The Wind.” (Courtesy of Gold Town Theater)
This weekend’s lineup at the Gold Town Theater really blows

Xmas Bazaar Xtravaganza nearly sold out already, but seeing “The Wind” to live music a breeze.

Scant patches of snow remain at the base of Eaglecrest Ski area on Wednesday despite snowmaking efforts that occurred during the weekend, due to warmer temperatures and rain this week. The opening date for the ski area, originally set for Dec. 2 and then delayed until Dec. 9, is now undetermined. (Photo courtesy of Eaglecrest Ski Area)
Eaglecrest opening delayed again, target date now TBD

Warm temperatures and rain thwart efforts to open ski area on Saturday.

Work crews continue removing hundreds of truckloads of debris from Zimovia Highway since the Nov. 20 landslide in Wrangell. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
Clearing work continues at Wrangell slide; fundraising grows to help families

Juneau, with several thousand pounds of food collected in drive, among many communities assisting.

The front page of the Juneau Empire on Dec. 4, 2005. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Empire Archives: Juneau’s history for the week of Dec. 10

Three decades of capital city coverage.

Staff of the Ketchikan Misty Fjords Ranger District carry a 15-foot-long lodgepole pine near the Silvis Lake area to a vessel for transport to Juneau on Nov. 30. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)
Together Tree departs Ketchikan for Governor’s Residence in Juneau

Annual Holiday Open House featuring 21,350 cookies scheduled 3-6 p.m. Dec. 12.

Female caribou runs near Teshekpuk Lake on June 12, 2022. (Photo by Ashley Sabatino, Bureau of Land Management)
Alaska tribes urge protection for federal lands

80% of food comes from surrounding lands and waters for Alaska Native communities off road system.

Ron Ekis (wearing red) and Dakota Brown order from Devils Hideaway at the new Vintage Food Truck Park as Marty McKeown, owner of the property, shows seating facilities still under construction to other local media members on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New Vintage Food Truck Park makes year-round debut

Two of planned five food trucks now open, with covered seating and other offerings in the works.

Most Read