Hoosick Falls and Teflon: Financial boom to pollution bust

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Photo Gallery | Historic photos of Teflon factories in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. — "Teflon, that 'funny looking thing.'"

That line appeared in a full-page spread inside the Feb. 22, 1975 issue of the Banner. An article carrying the headline "Boom Town" described how one of Hoosick Falls' largest employers, Oak Materials Group, expected to double the number of jobs within the next five years.

At the time, a total of 380 people worked at the company's manufacturing facilities on First, John, Liberty and McCaffrey streets and River Road. Among the products made were Teflon coated yarns, sewing threads, plumbing, glass textiles and skived tapes.

For decades, companies across the country made Teflon using a processing agent known as (PFOA).

It was the discovery of PFOA in the village's water supply which led the EPA to warn residents late last year not to drink or cook with the tap water.

Philip Leonard, Hoosick town historian, presented information on the village's manufacturing history to the town board last week.

"People came from all over to get work," Leonard, who served as superintendent of the Hoosick Falls Central School District between 1965 and 1981, said in an interview Sunday.

Downtown thrived as a strong middle class found it easy to get a job. The village had its own public water and paved roads. Social clubs and businesses blossomed.

"We had everything," said Leonard, 89.

Over 7,000 people lived in Hoosick Falls at the village's peak in 1900.

That number has shrunk to about 3,500, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Factories have moved elsewhere in the country or overseas.

About 200 people work at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics' facilities at 14 McCaffrey St. and 1 Liberty St., making the French-owned company the village's biggest employer. The company makes specialty foams, tapes and wiring. It's also one of two companies state environmental investigators say is potentially responsible for the PFOA contamination. The second company is New Jersey-based Honeywell International.

"That funny looking thing"

The 1975 article describes how Teflon was reportedly discovered by accident in the 1930s. A test tube in the DuPont Laboratories was reportedly left overnight and the strange substance discovered the next morning.

"It wasn't until the 1960s that the value of the properties of Teflon were discovered," the article stated. "It is slippery, doesn't burn, and is impervious to all chemicals with the exception of molten alkilis."

Teflon is used in nonstick cookware and water resistent clothing. It's the brand name for the man-made chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). While there are concerns over fumes from an overheated pan, there are no known risks to Teflon-coated cookware and it's not suspected of causing cancer by itself, according to the American Cancer Society.

"PFOA has the potential to be more of a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time," according to the ACS website. "Studies have found that it is present at very low levels in just about everyone's blood in the United States."

Long-term effects from PFOA are largely unknown, according to the ACS. The EPA doesn't regulate PFOA in drinking water, but does have an "advisory level" of 400 parts per trillion; water taken from the village's three wells has about 600 ppt.

In 2006, DuPont, seven other companies and the EPA reached a "stewardship agreement" with a goal to eliminate PFOA use by 2015.

The New York Times reported DuPont observed negative health effects decades ago. The company faces 3,500 lawsuits alleging people got sick or died from PFOA found in public water or private wells in Ohio and West Virginia.

A panel of three scientists studied PFOA exposure from 2005 to 2013. The panel concluded a "probable link" to diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

"Enormous potential"

Information available from the historical society, consisting of newspaper clippings, company reports and other documents, indicate Teflon was used in the village for decades.

Cleveland Dodge, Jr., of Pownal, Vt., reportedly saw "enormous potential" in the chemical. In 1955, he founded Dodge Fibers in the former Estellite Building on lower John Street and began making insulation from glass fiber and Teflon. By 1962, the company's Fluroglass Division was in a newly built factory at 14 McCaffrey Street as well as factories on First Street (the former Noble and Wood Machine Company building), John Street, and Liberty Street (the former Nancy Shoe Company building).

By 1967, Dodge Industries' two divisions produced Teflon products and copper foil for circuit boards. Both were sold that year to what would become Oak Material Groups; the circuit board division became Oak-Mitsui.

In 1986, AlliedSignal acquired both the Teflon and copper foil divisions from the Oak Materials Group. AlliedSignal, an aerospace and engineering company, merged with Honeywell in 1999 to form Honeywell International.

In 1996, the Teflon division was sold to California-based Fluron and then again in 1999 to Saint-Gobain. That same year, the circuit materials division was sold to a German company which later merged with Isola.

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979


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