Thinking and Discussing PFOA

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Cheyenne Vaughn ‘17 and Lily Wujek ‘18

“How much nicotine would you want in your baby’s bottle?” This question, posed to an audience in CAPA on Thursday night, is Albany Times Union lead investigative reporter Brendan Lyons’ guiding principle for thinking about water contaminants such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Just hours before Lyons’ visit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) had released their own answer to this question:  no more than 70 parts per trillion of PFOA.

According to the Fact Sheet released with this updated advisory, the levels were calculated “to offer a margin of protection against adverse health effects to the most sensitive populations: fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants.”

Parents, though, want nothing in their babies’ bottles. The health risks associated with exposure to PFOA include, but are not limited to, birth defects, immune deficiencies, thyroid disease, and cancer. 

Water systems serving 7 million people in 27 states have been affected by PFOA contamination the New York Times reported in March.

Bennington College’s water source was unaffected by PFOA, but the college has been active in responding to the crisis since PFOA was discovered in nearby wells earlier this year. 

In towns such as Bennington, VT and Hoosick Falls, NY, residents have drunk PFOA for years. Lyons explained Thursday night that families in Hoosick Falls have even taken PFOA-contaminated barrels home from the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastic factory and used them to store Christmas ornaments and to bob for apples.

Prior to the EPA updating its advisory, Vermont and New Jersey had already set their PFOA advisories at 20 and 35 parts per trillion, respectively. Despite early promises to release their own advisory, New York residents are still waiting for an official threshold from their state.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released a statement in March when the EPA designated Hoosick Falls as a Superfund site because of its PFOA contamination:

“We believe that the users of the water system have obviously been inconvenienced and people feel that they are paying their bill for the water system but then they can’t use the water system and that is unfair.”

The Health Department was notified of PFOA contamination in fall 2014, but did not notify residents because of the chemical’s status as an unregulated contaminant.

Because it is an unregulated contaminant they did not notify residents because it was not required.

Since then, Lyons’ writing has become a key reference point for residents working to make sense of the problem. Lyons considers his responsibility as a reporter to be in a watchdog position, to be fair, and to put himself in the shoes of his readers, asking the questions the public needs to know the answers to.

His articles up to this point can be found at the Albany Times Union’s website, including his original article which broke the story in December 2015, “A Danger That Lurks Below”: