PFOA Drinking Water Contamination
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has advised the residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, not to drink the water from the public water supply, or use it for cooking, as it has been found to be contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Also called “C8” (because it has 8 carbons) or “Ammonium Perfluorooctanoate (APFO),” PFOA is a toxic chemical used for decades to make Teflon and other stain- and water-resistant products, including fire-fighting foams, ski-wax, Gore-Tex jackets, coating additives, and cleaning products. Studies have linked it to serious health issues including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, and medically diagnosed high cholesterol.
Concerns about contamination have spread from Hoosick Falls to nearby Petersburgh, New York and North Bennington, Vermont communities. In February 2016, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, current and former owners of the plant that has been named by the state of New York as the source of the contamination.
It was in 2004 that DuPont, makers of Teflon, agreed to pay $107 million in a legal settlement with neighbors of their Teflon plant along the Ohio River in West Virginia, because of drinking water contaminated with PFOA. In 2006, the EPA increased pressure on manufacturers to eliminate the chemical from their products by 2015.
Saint-Gobain has pledged to install a $2 million carbon filtration system on the village’s water plant, which should remove the PFOA.
What is PFOA?
Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)—a family of chemicals that includes PFOA—have been used since the 1950s in various commercial applications. Surfactants, lubricants, paper and textile coatings, polishes, food packaging, and fire-retarding foams all contain them. PFOA can also be produced by the breakdown of other chemicals used to impart water, stain, and grease resistance to products like paper, carpets, and textiles.
Because of their widespread use over so many decades, and their tendency to bioaccumulate, PFCs have been the source of increasing concern over the years.
In 2007, for example, researchers examined blood samples from a representative 2003-2004 sample of the U.S. population, and detected four of these chemicals, including PFOA, in 98 percent of them. They concluded that exposure to PFCs was widespread, even after 3M in 2002 discontinued its production of related compounds.
PFOA is also persistent in the environment, and according to the EPA, has been detected in wildlife. A 2012 study confirmed that PFOA is present in surface waters, accumulates in top predators, and is increasingly analyzed in drinking water. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “There is widespread wildlife and human exposure to several PFCs, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).” They go on to state that PFOA production has been reduced and “will soon be eliminated.”
As studies have linked these chemicals to health issues and environmental concerns, there have been worldwide efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate their use. Since 1999, global emissions of PFOA have decreased by more than half. The EPA in 2006 launched a global program encouraging companies to reduce PFOA and its presence in products by 2010, and to eliminate them completely by 2015.
What are the Health Dangers Associated with PFOA?
PFOA isn’t stored in body fat, but it takes a long time to leave the human body. The NIH states that for some PFCs, it can take several years before they are flushed out, and that humans can be exposed by consuming PFC-contaminated water and food, or by using products that contain these chemicals.
Animal studies as far back as the 1980s showed that prenatal exposure to PFCs could delay mammary gland development, disrupt normal hormonal activity, reduce immune function, damage the liver and pancreas, and cause developmental problems. The EPA states that PFOA in particular is very persistent in the environment, is found at low levels in the blood of the general U.S. population, and remains in people for a “very long time.”
Meanwhile, a number of studies have indicated that PFOA can cause serious health issues. Many of our most recent studies come from the “C8 Health Project,” an entity created, authorized, and funded as part of the settlement agreement reached in a class-action lawsuit against DuPont. Plaintiffs brought claims of PFOA (or C8) contamination of drinking water in six districts in two states near the DuPont Washington Works facility near Parkersburg, West Virginia.
The plant had been releasing C8 into the air and the Ohio River from the 1950s until the early 2000s, and it entered the groundwater to contaminate drinking water supplies. As part of the settlement agreement, an independent company (the C8 Health Project) was set up to conduct a yearlong survey of PFOA contamination in the nearby population.
In the end, the survey included nearly 70,000 people enrolled between 2005 and 2006. Results showed that the population geometric mean for serum PFOA was 32.91 ng/mL, 500 percent higher than previously reported for a representative American population.
The settlement also established a group of public health scientists to study the potential link between C8 and health issues. Called the “C8 Science Panel,” the group of three epidemiologic scientists conducted a series of studies over several years, from which they determined a probable link between C8 exposure and the following:
- diagnosed high cholesterol
- ulcerative colitis
- thyroid disease
- testicular cancer
- kidney cancer
- pregnancy-induced hypertension
PFOA Contamination Hits Hoosick Falls, NY
In June 2015, samples collected from the public water supply in Hoosick Falls, New York, were found to contain more than 600 ppt (parts per trillion) of PFOA. Samples of groundwater at the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics facility found levels as high as 18,000 ppt. The EPA, in 2009, had established a provisional health advisory of only 400 ppt for the chemical. In 2014, they stated that if this level was exceeded, residents should discontinue the use of the water for drinking or cooking.
On November 25, 2015, EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck sent a letter to Mayor Borge of Hoosick Falls, New York. In the letter, she reiterated that PFOA water contamination had been discovered in the groundwater and drinking water in the Village of Hoosick Falls at higher-than-advised levels, and recommended that bottled water be provided to residents and that the water not be used for cooking, until PFOA concentrations could be reduced.
Critics have noted that the warning came far too late. According to the New York Times, the state took nearly a year and a half from when the chemical was discovered in the water by a concerned resident to the warning from state officials that residents stop drinking it.
According to documents on the Hoosick Falls website, officials may have been aware as far back as August 2014 that the water supply could be contaminated with PFOA. That month, a local resident whose father had died of kidney cancer, met with the mayor to request water samples for analysis. His father had worked for 35 years at a plant that made plastics similar to Teflon. The local resident’s research led him to the DuPont class-action lawsuit settlements, and the C8 Science Panel and their findings on PFOA.
The mayor refused the local resident’s first request, since at the time, the state of New York didn’t require testing on PFOA. He had his own kitchen tap water and some other samples tested. The results showed the chemical at 540 ppt.
It was in January 2015 that samples from a village well first showed PFOA levels exceeded the recommended level, yet officials brushed it off as not constituting an immediate health hazard. As late as December 2015, even after the EPA had sent their letter to the Mayor, officials were still assuring residents that the water was safe.
It wasn’t until January 2016 that Governor Cuomo announced a state of emergency and began a series of actions to address the contamination. On February 20, 2016, state officials announced that the chemical had also been found in the water in Petersburgh, NY, and soon after, in wells in North Bennington.
On March 13, 2016, the New York Times reported that the new filter system installed in Hoosick Falls had successfully cleared the PFOA from the municipal water supply.
Concerned citizens are now demanding that the EPA regulate PFOA the way it does other dangerous toxins like arsenic and lead. The agency is expected to set a new advisory of only 100 ppt for long-term exposure this spring.
DuPont is currently defending about 3,500 lawsuits filed by people with diseases they blame on PFOA contamination. In October 2015, they were found liable for a woman’s kidney cancer in the first of those cases to go to trial. This, after the company already settled that class-action lawsuit involving 70,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio.
Levels of the chemical in Petersburgh so far have come in at about 100 ppt—lower than the previous 400 ppt recommendation, but at the new level of 100 ppt that the EPA is expected to recommend soon. Taconic Plastics is the closest potential source of contamination.
Four residents of Hoosick Falls who claimed they were exposed to PFOA, and that the value of their properties has fallen because of the contamination, filed a class-action lawsuit against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International in February 2016. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court in Albany. One of the plaintiffs states she tried to refinance her mortgage and was turned down by a local bank because of the water pollution. Another remains concerned for her children’s health. The plaintiffs seek class-action status to include any residents or property owners that have suffered damage because of the issue.
How a PFOA Water Contamination Lawyer Can Help
Victims of PFOA contamination and their families may be eligible to file a personal injury or property damage lawsuit against potential polluting entities for failing to be more diligent in their disposal of waste materials.
If you or a loved one suffered an injury because PFOA contamination, contact the lawyers at Chaffin Luhana for help. We fiercely advocate for plaintiffs who were injured through no fault of their own. We will fully investigate the case and pursue all avenues of potential compensation for you and your family.