PFOA and PFOS: In-Depth Look at Chemicals Creating Major Concerns

In the past few years, contamination of drinking water supplies has been discovered in several small towns in northeastern upstate New York as well as in a nearby community in North Bennington, Vermont.

Thereafter, similar contamination was discovered near a plant in New Hampshire, on Cape Cod and near Newburgh, New York.  The chemical involved in all three drinking water supplies is perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA). This chemical, or a closely related one known as PFOS, has turned up in the drinking water of multiple other localities.

What makes this discovery striking is that this contamination was discovered not through routine governmental required testing, but through the vigilance and diligence of concerned citizens.

In the case of North Bennington, the state of Vermont quickly became actively involved. While in New York, the state government was slow to react and when it did, performed rather unevenly, causing residents to consume contaminated water for many months after the contamination was discovered.

Faraci Lange is handling multiple cases in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, the two upstate New York towns where the contamination was discovered, and where efforts are now underway to deal with the problem.

 

What is PFOA?

PFOA is a man-made chemical not found in nature. It is an eight carbon chain with each but the last carbon atom bonded to fluorine atoms.  The last carbon atom is bonded to an oxygen atom and an OH group, making it an acid. However, the acid form of this molecule is not typically how it is used in manufacturing.

Ammonium perfluorooctanoate (APFO), which is the initial form of the acid, is used as a surfactant in the production of PTFE coated materials including Teflon® cooking surfaces and various waterproof and stain-proof fabrics used for carpeting, upholstery, clothing, tapes and various other uses.

As a surfactant, APFO is added to PTFE dispersions to help the chemical mixture spread evenly on whatever surface it is being applied. The object is then heated causing the PTFE to adhere to the surface and the APFO to vaporize and discharge into the air.

APFO was invented, manufactured and sold by the 3M Corporation until approximately 2001.  3M became concerned about the health hazards of APFO and decided to stop manufacturing the chemical. Thereafter, DuPont, which has been one of the largest customers of 3M in purchasing the chemical to make its Teflon® products, began to manufacture the chemical for its own use and for sale to other manufactures of PTFE resins.

In 2006, due to human health concerns, the United States Environmental Protection Agency initiated the 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program. Eight major companies committed to reduce facility emissions and product contents of PFOA and related chemicals (including PFOS) on a global basis by 95% no later than 2010 and to work toward eliminating emissions and product content of these chemicals by 2015. To a large extent this goal was accomplished, but the chemicals substituted in their places are very similar man-made multiple carbon chain molecules with untested and unknown health effects.

 

How does PFOA get into drinking water?

When the vaporized APFO cools after being exhausted out of the stacks of the manufacturing facility, it forms particulate matter that is carried by the air until it settles to the ground or is washed out of the air by precipitation. Once it reaches the soil, it loses the NHgrouping and converts to the acid form.

PFOA then readily dissolves into water and washes down into the groundwater.  It also dissolves into surface waters out of the air and the remnants of the original dispersion containing APFO are frequently discharged in liquid form by these same manufacturing facilities into both ground and surface waters near the facilities.

 

What are the health hazards of PFOA?

PFOA and a related chemical PFOS, which is another eight carbon manmade molecule used in foam fire retardants, are particularly troublesome because they are both highly resistant to breakdown in the environment. Once they convert to the acid form, there is nothing in nature that breaks them down, and they will persist for decades or centuries.

Equally problematic is their persistence once they are inhaled, ingested or absorbed into the human body.  Studies have shown it takes two to seven years for the body to rid itself of half of the PFOA contained in blood serum. Thus, where there is long-term exposure and a buildup of these chemicals in the bloodstream, it can take a lifetime to reduce the levels.

Unfortunately, due to the persistence and ubiquity of these chemicals, even though they are not found in nature, they are found in all of us at low levels, usually determined to be about 2 parts per billion. People who consume water contaminated with PFOA, like the residents of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, can have levels hundreds of times above those background levels.

Studies of workers exposed to PFOA have shown multiple possible negative health effects for years. Both 3M and DuPont did internal unpublished worker studies which suggested multiple different adverse health effects, forming the basis of 3M stopping its production of the chemical. However, the most comprehensive study of PFOA health effects resulted from the 2006 settlement of a lawsuit brought against DuPont for contaminating the drinking water supply of approximately 70,000 people living in communities along the Ohio River in West Virginia and Ohio. DuPont’s Washington Works plant located in Parkersburg, WV released PFOA, which was referred to as C8, into the air and into the Ohio River causing this contamination.

A lawsuit brought on behalf of citizens in the affected communities resulted in a massive study of the health effects of this chemical funded by DuPont as a condition of the settlement. Almost 70,000 people participated by completing surveys of their health histories and being tested for PFOA in their bloodstreams. Pursuant to the settlement, the C8 Science Panel was selected by attorneys for DuPont and the plaintiffs and consisted of three nationally recognized epidemiologists. They were tasked with reviewing the data generated from the study and determining whether there were any illnesses in this population that were likely related to the PFOA exposures.

The panel concluded that PFOA created an elevated risk of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, elevated liver enzymes, elevated uric acid levels, high cholesterol and pregnancy induced hypertension, and that in virtually all cases, the risk increased with level of exposure, which is referred to as a dose-response. Follow up studies found evidence of associations to other diseases including ovarian cancer.

 

Federal and State Regulation of PFOA

PFOA and PFOS are among thousands of man-made chemicals that were unregulated by either the state or federal governments until recently.

In 2009, the EPA identified PFOA as an emerging contaminant of concern and issued a provisional health advisory stating that short term (weeks to months) exposure to PFOA-contaminated water at a concentration of 400 parts per trillion (ppt) can cause human health effects. The EPA also advised at that time that long-term exposure to PFOS-contaminated water at a concentration of 200 parts per trillion (ppt) can cause human health effects.

Following EPA’s action in 2009, several states including Minnesota, Maine and New Jersey set drinking water limits for PFOA below EPA’s short term exposure level of 400 ppt. By 2016, EPA issued a health advisory warning that drinking water should not contain more than 70 ppt. Other states, including Vermont, set even lower limits, with Vermont setting a limit of 20 ppt. Leading scientists in the field have concluded that even these limits are too high and the standard should be set at 1 ppt.

Levels discovered in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh were as high as 600 to several thousand parts per trillion. Water filtration systems have been installed on the public water supply after residents went months only drinking bottled water. Individual point of entry treatment systems (POET) were installed on hundreds of private wells in the area. A long-term source of clean drinking water is being sought for both communities, but this will not be an easy task.

 

Civil Lawsuits against Polluters

Class action lawsuits are now underway in state and federal courts on behalf of the citizens of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, seeking recoveries from the companies responsible for the contamination.

These suits are claiming property devaluation damages and are also seeking to establish a medical surveillance program to screen the exposed population for the diseases associated with PFOA exposure to promote early diagnosis and treatment.

Faraci Lange is lead counsel in those cases. In addition, several cases have been filed by residents exposed to PFOA who have been diagnosed with illnesses associated with PFOA exposure, and more will be filed in the coming months.

 

Stephen G. Schwarz, Managing Partner of Faraci Lange, is representing plaintiffs in the Hoosick Falls water contamination class action as Co-Lead Counsel with Hadley Matarazzo.

 

 


New Survey Seeks Insight Into Health Impacts of PFOA

The New York Department of Health announced this week that it will be launching a national health effects study of communities impacted by chemical substances such as PFOA, including Hoosick Falls.

Five states have signed up to support the DOH’s request to the Centers for Disease Control to launch the study, including Alaska, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

The Department of Health has also launched an online survey as part of a project called Understanding PFOA, which focuses on current or past residents of Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, or Bennington.

This questionnaire is apart from previous studies as it will examine all illnesses linked to PFOA, not just cancers.

Questions asked in the survey, responses to which will be kept confidential, include where and when they lived in that particular area, their occupations, and any health conditions they have been diagnosed with.

“Are there trends, health trends in their communities, among the residents who consumed contaminated water?” stated environmental leader Judith Enck.

More than 1,700 residents in the Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh area have already completed the survey.

October 1st is the last day given to complete the health questionnaire.

The survey can be found online here. For those without access to a computer, a paper version of the questionnaire can be obtained by calling the DOH at 518-402-7950.

Read the full story here.


Editorial: Cancer Study Provides Incomplete Picture of Health Impact

The Daily Gazette recently published an editorial elaborating on the lack of scope of the New York State Department of Health’s cancer study that investigated the impact Hoosick Falls’ PFOA water contamination had on residents’ health.

The study found that there were no elevated incidences of cancer among village residents due to the long term exposure of PFOA.

In the opinion of many, the study provides an incomplete and potentially inaccurate image of the effects of PFOA on Hoosick Falls residents.

For one, the investigation only took into account data from the state’s cancer registry of people residing in the Village of Hoosick Falls.

This left out people living in the surrounding town of Hoosick Falls, where more than 100 wells were contaminated with PFOA. This also excluded the town residents who get their water from the village’s municipal supply.

Additionally, the study also failed to include data from people who had previously lived in the contamination area but have since moved out.

Another factor was the length of the study. The investigation studied data from 1995, which is about 22 years. The contamination, however, is said to go back about 40 years.

The report also had a lack of transparency, with the names of the researchers and peer reviewers being unidentified. This makes it more difficult for the public to evaluate the qualifications of the people behind the study.

Read the full editorial here.


Community Meeting Addresses Questions About State Cancer Study

A community meeting was held in Hoosick Falls last week to address questions regarding the New York State Department of Health cancer study that was recently released.

The study, which investigates the effect of PFOA exposure on cancer rates in the Village of Hoosick Falls, was criticized by many for its narrow scope. Shortly after its release, residents gathered at the Hoosick Falls Armory for answers.

“Nobody is being held accountable. Nobody has even apologized for dumping toxins in the water,” said Barbara Burch, who previously lived in Hoosick Falls with her family but now resides in Petersburg.

Burch and her family have been consuming water contaminated with PFOA for over 20 years, after which her husband died from cancer.

“…nobody contacted me about his results or what happened to him,” stated Burch, feeling frustrated that her husband’s results were left out from the study.

Mayor Rob Allen was also present at the meeting and wanted the community to know that the Department of Health would be accessible to answer any questions.

“We spent a lot of time explaining what our study didn’t do…Our study does not dismiss or diminish the very valid concerns that residents have,” said Department of Health Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Brad Hutton.

More meetings will be scheduled in Hoosick Falls by the Department of Health for anyone who still has questions.

Read the full article here.


State Report Showing No Elevations of Cancer in Hoosick Falls Criticized for Narrow Scope

The New York State Department of Health recently released a Cancer Incidence Investigation report that found no significant elevations of cancer for any of the cancer types associated with exposure to PFOA.

The Department of Health studied data from New York State’s Cancer Registry between the dates of January 1995 through December 2014 to analyze cancers diagnosed among residents of Hoosick Falls.

The investigation reported lower rates of certain types of cancer that have been linked to long-term PFOA exposure, including kidney, thyroid and testicular cancers.

A significantly elevated rate of lung cancer, which has not been linked to PFOA exposure, was however reported. There were 91 cases of lung cancer found during the study period – much higher than the expected rate of 65 cases for a population of this size.

Critics found the investigation to be flawed as it did not take into account the Hoosick Falls residents who were diagnosed with cancer after moving away from the village.

The report also fails to indicate whether cancer rates were specifically reviewed among individuals whose blood contained elevated levels of PFOA.

“The purpose of the investigation was to determine whether village residents who consumed contaminated water had increased rates of cancer relative to the rest of the state,” stated deputy commissioner for public health Brad Hutton.

Residents who live in the town of Hoosick surrounding the village were also not included in the study. The Department of Health stated that it limited its investigation to village residents since their level of exposure to PFOA was consistent.

Additionally, the study was limited to cancer and ignored other health conditions that have been linked to high exposure of PFOA, such as preeclampsia, colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and respiratory problems.

Read the DOH Cancer Report Summary for more information.

The full article can be viewed here.


More Health Harms from PFOA Found

New studies have came out recently that show more harmful effects of PFOA exposure on mothers and their children.

Four studies that have been conducted by Harvard researchers and other leading journals to look into highly fluorinated chemicals such as PFOA.

“These chemicals have some of the strongest bonds in the periodic table, and they basically never break down, so they stay around for millions of years,” said Arlene Blum from the University of California, Berkeley-based Green Science Policy Institute.

Several kinds of cancer, high cholesterol and obesity are some of the harmful health effects associated with PFOA exposure.

It was also found that young children who are exposed to the chemical PFOA have a reduced immune response to vaccinations. Furthermore, as children grow older, they may experience other problems such as more colds and upset stomachs.

Another study discovered that women who had high levels of PFOA in their blood were not able to breastfeed as long as other women.

Learn more here.

Attorneys Stephen Schwarz and Hadley Matarazzo at Faraci Lange, as well as Robin Greenwald at Weitz & Luxenberg, represent the plaintiffs as co-lead counsel in the Hoosick Falls lawsuit.

Studies Presume PFOA to be Immune Hazard for Humans

PFOA immune hazardThe National Toxicology Program recently conducted a systematic review of immunotoxicity associated with exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and concluded that the chemical is presumed to be an immune hazard to humans.

The NTP found a high level of evidence that PFOA suppressed the antibody response from
animal studies and the moderate level of evidence from studies in humans. The research also found a high level of evidence that PFOA increased hypersensitivity-related outcomes from animal studies and low level of evidence from studies in humans.

There is additional, although weaker, evidence that is primarily from epidemiological studies that PFOA reduced infectious disease resistance and increased autoimmune disease.

The evidence indicating that PFOA affects multiple aspects of the immune system supports the overall conclusion that PFOA alters immune function in humans.

Read the full report here.

Residents of Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh and other communities who believe they may have been impacted by the PFOA water contamination are encouraged to contact us or submit a contamination contact form.


Good News/Bad News in Hoosick Falls

Residents of Hoosick Falls, New York dealing with the crisis caused by the contamination of their water supply with the dangerous chemical PFOA have recently received some important news.

First, the good news is that on January 13, 2016, the State of New York formally requested the EPA add the Village to its National Priorities List, designating it a Federal “superfund site”.  Two weeks later, Governor Cuomo designated PFOA a “hazardous substance” and named Hoosick Falls a state superfund site.  These actions are good news, in that government agencies are finally acknowledging the dangers of PFOA, and they will eventually result in the government doing what it should have been done a long time ago:  investigate all the sources of PFOA, and document its effects on citizens.  These actions should eventually lead to a comprehensive biomonitoring program and a scientific study of PFOA’s health effects in the Village over recent decades.

However, “superfund” designations can be bad news too:  they bring “stigma” to property, as well as a reduction in value.  Indeed, two banks have already suspended issuing mortgages and refinancing in Hoosick Falls.  A superfund site is also disruptive of community life, and puts demands on citizens as they work together to find long-range solutions.

While the government may answer the many questions facing Hoosick Falls, it cannot remedy or compensate for the harm and damages residents have suffered and continue to suffer.  Those remedies, most likely, will only be found in a courtroom.   Williams Cuker Berezofsky and Faraci & Lange continue to investigate bringing a lawsuit to seek those remedies.

In the meantime, we continue to advise:

  • make your voice heard in decisions the government makes about its investigation;
  • get your blood tested as soon as the Department of Health makes the test for PFOA available;
  • if you have a private well, get it tested now; and
  • contact us with any questions you have regarding your rights.