The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement Thursday warning residents in Hoosick Falls not to drink or cook with village water because of elevated levels of a toxic chemical found in the public water system last year.
In response, the village’s mayor has reversed his position, and adopted the EPA’s recommendation.
The man-made chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or “PFOA,” was used since the 1940s to manufacture industrial and household products such as non-stick coatings and heat-resistant wiring, including at a factory near the village water treatment plant. The chemical was discovered in the village water system last year by a private citizen, Michael Hickey, whose father, John, died of kidney cancer in 2013. PFOA has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, as well as thyroid diseases and other serious health problems.
The EPA’s public statement was issued four days after a Times Union story reported that the state Health Department and village leaders, including Mayor David B. Borge, downplayed the health risks of PFOA in the water supply, and declined to warn people not to drink it. The story reported that many village residents, including a longtime family physician in Hoosick Falls, Dr. Marcus E. Martinez, suspected that high cancer rates and other extraordinary health problems in the village’s population may be the result of the contaminated water.
“While the EPA continues to gather information and assess the Hoosick Falls water contamination, it recommends that people not drink the water from the Hoosick Falls public water supply or use it for cooking,” the EPA’s statement said. The agency’s statement said it does not believe that showering or bathing in the water poses a risk for unsafe exposure to PFOA.
The mayor had said it was a “personal choice” whether to drink the water, a position that was supported by the village board. The state Health Department recently issued a “fact sheet” to village residents stating: “Health effects are not expected to occur from normal use of the water.” But the mayor and the state agency abruptly changed their stances this week.
“With regard to my position on the consumption of village water, my official position as mayor will now directly coincide with the statement provided to me by the EPA,” Borge said in an email Thursday afternoon.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the state Health Department said the agency is recommending that village residents only consume bottled water.
“Although scientific evaluation of the health risks of PFOA exposure continues, DOH recommends that people take steps to reduce their exposure regardless of the risk for health effects,” said JP O’Hare, a state Health Department spokesman. “To reduce exposure from drinking water found to contain PFOA, people should use bottled water for drinking and food preparation. People may also consider using carbon filters which are known to remove PFOA from water, but their efficiency for site specific circumstances are not known without site specific testing.”
It’s unclear how the PFOA pollution got into the village’s underground wells. Many residents suspect the chemical came from the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Plant that’s on McCaffrey Street, several hundred yards from the village’s water treatment plant. Saint-Gobain and prior owners of the plant used PFOA to manufacture products there, including heat-resistant wiring, dating back decades. Saint-Gobain purchased the plant in 1999, becoming the fifth owner of the facility since it opened in 1956. The France-based company also owns another manufacturing plant in the village. The two plants employ about 200 people.
For several weeks, Saint-Gobain has been paying for village residents to get free bottled water from a Tops supermarket in Hoosick Falls. The company also has provided alternate water to some facilities, including St. Mary’s Academy, an elementary school in the village that shut off its only water fountain recently.
Borge said the company has also agreed to pay more than $2 million to install a carbon-filter system at the village treatment plant that would remove PFOA from the water. The project is expected to take about a year to complete.
Residents in a grassroots group, Healthy Hoosick Water, that formed to draw attention to the issue, are pushing for government agencies to conduct a health survey to determine whether cancer and other illnesses in the village can be attributed to the PFOA pollution. The group also called on the state or EPA to determine the source of the pollution and how far it may have spread. Saint-Gobain tested groundwater at its McCaffrey Street plant last year and found levels of PFOA at 18,000 parts per trillion, well above the 400 ppt advisory level for short-term exposure set by the EPA. But scientific studies funded by DuPont in the Ohio valley, where PFOA pollution has been linked to potentially thousands of cancer cases, indicate the EPA’s level may not be safe and that even low levels of PFOA in drinking water can be dangerous.
A company official said Saint-Gobain phased out its use of PFOA more than 10 years ago amid growing international concerns about the chemical’s health and environmental effects. In 2006, the EPA reached an agreement with DuPont and other manufacturers to stop producing or using PFOA, although DuPont continued producing PFOA because the agreement did not call for the end of production of the chemical until 2015. The EPA’s settlement with DuPont came less than a year after DuPont agreed to pay $10.25 million in civil penalties to settle a complaint brought by the EPA regarding the company’s PFOA pollution in the Midwest. At the time, it was the largest civil administrative penalty ever obtained by the EPA under federal environmental statutes.