The very thing Shirley Johnston is fighting against is all around her, flowing from the faucet in her cozy kitchen, showering onto family members in the bathroom.
Johnston and Paulsboro’s 6,100 other residents are navigating the latest public health scare – elevated levels of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), used to make plastics and other materials, in the borough water supply.
A January advisory from the state Department of Environmental Protection cautioned residents to use bottled water to feed children a year old and younger. But for Johnston’s family, the notice came a year and 12 days too late.
Her great-grandson Dayvon was born Jan. 5, 2013, and the family used tap water in his formula, unknowingly giving him a chemical with uncertain health impacts. They have since limited his consumption to bottled water.
Dayvon toddled about Johnston’s Greenwich Avenue home last week in his walker, an Elmo pacifier between his chubby cheeks. Johnston’s 8-year-old son, Nathan, has been drinking the water, too.
“I protect them with my life, but . . . I’m feeding them water that has poison in it,” Johnston, 61, said. She and other family members still drink the water, citing financial constraints.
Her daughter Michelle Morian, 40, kissed Dayvon’s forehead.
“My only grandchild,” she said. “Mr. Smiley.”
News of the contamination spread in 2013, after the Delaware Riverkeeper Network obtained data from 2009 through open-records requests. The DEP sent data to the borough, but officials say they were not told of any immediate concerns.
Johnston and Morian are among more than a dozen residents who have filed a lawsuit in Gloucester County Superior Court against the West Deptford plastics company Solvay Specialty Polymers, accused of discharging the chemicals.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, seeks household filtration systems and medical monitoring for residents.
Solvay said it stopped using PFCs in 2010 and denied any liability. It has offered bottled water to families with children younger than a year old, and maintains it is working with the borough.
With science still emerging on PFCs, including the specific one in Paulsboro – perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) – residents are worried about its possible effects: dry skin, sickly pets, even cancer.
“I care about my kids and all the other kids here,” Johnston said.
The contamination is the latest blow to this industrial borough on the Delaware River where 29 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. It follows numerous oil-release concerns and the high-profile train derailment that leaked toxic vinyl chloride in 2012.
The borough uses the water because the filtration system of another well is being upgraded to account for naturally occurring radium, a regulated contaminant.
“One thing after another,” Mayor W. Jeffery Hamilton said. He said the borough hoped to host DEP representatives at a Feb. 18 meeting on the water issue.
Sue Meade, 68, moved to the borough 14 years ago.
“I wanted a rancher with a basement and a little garage. This house fit the bill perfectly,” she said of her home in the Billingsport area. “Now I’m scared. I think I’m ready to leave.”
“I pretty much feel stuck,” she said. “I don’t think there’s going to be anyone coming down the street and say they want to buy my house.”
In West Virginia, a similar case over another PFC – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – has led to numerous lawsuits. An initial settlement with the DuPont chemical company established a panel to study PFOA that found six probable links to kidney cancer, thyroid disease, and other illnesses.
In its advisory to Paulsboro, the DEP said it was not aware of any studies “that have directly linked consumption of water with PFNAs with human health effects.”
There are no regulations covering PFC levels in water, but the level for PFNA is about four times the state’s “guidance level” for PFOA.
The panel charged with recommending appropriate maximum contaminant levels to the DEP, the Drinking Water Quality Institute, has been dormant for four years since its last chairman, Mark Robson, stepped down.
At its last meeting in 2010, the health effects subcommittee had reported making progress in determining a maximum number for PFOA.
Perry Cohn, a retired state Department of Health researcher who was an ex-officio panel member, said that in the panel’s final months, chemical company representatives had sought more influence on the board, attending meetings frequently. He said the board had considered the companies’ input during public comment.
But at some point, DEP officials were told they were not “allowed to work with institute activities any further,” Cohn said. He did not know who gave the order.
Environmental advocates have blamed the Christie administration for the institute’s silence, but the DEP has cited the members’ departures.
A recent bill sponsored by Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli, a former Paulsboro mayor, would add three industry members to the institute.
“I want them in the room,” he said last week. “I want them to be there for these discussions . . . in the beginning, not just the end.”
Environmentalists argue it would bring conflicts of interest and say the bill would weaken the panel’s procedure for determining contaminant levels.
Even without PFNA water standards, treatment may be on the horizon: The DEP is working toward establishing groundwater cleanup criteria for PFNA that would create a remediation standard, a spokesman said Friday.
In the meantime, Paulsboro residents hope the lawsuit will bring respite, namely for their children.
“Somebody’s got to speak out for us,” Johnston said. She helped organize the residents.
“They said, ‘What are we going to get out of it?’ I said, ‘Water.'”