Film, discussion drive home realities of PFAS threat

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BENNINGTON — If anyone thinks their community has dodged the PFAS pollution bullet, filmmaker Victor Pytko's 82-minute documentary should squash that thought long before the credits roll.

The at-times disturbing film was shown Tuesday at Oldcastle Theatre, followed by a panel discussion involving clean drinking water advocate Loreen Hackett, Bennington College professor David Bond, who has taught courses on the subject, and Oldcastle Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson, whose new play on the subject, "Water, Water, Everywhere ," is scheduled to premiere here in October.

Hackett, who appears in film segments about her home town of Hoosick Falls, New York, said the impetus "was just to talk about our experiences, which people are dealing with every single day."

Having met or worked on advocacy projects with "every single person who appears in this film," she said the process "was all very personal."

Pytko, Hackett's uncle, who now resides in Detroit, credited her with badgering him to make such a documentary during visits to Hoosick Falls, where he was raised.

The documentary — "Bad Water: Small Town. Deaf Ears: Everything You Need to Know About PFAS But Don't Know How to Ask" — tells the story of industrial PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination of soil and water supplies at hundreds of sites around the U.S., mostly through the words of community group members in a half-dozen cities and towns in New Hampshire, New York, Michigan and Vermont.

It explains the complex chemical, environmental and medical issues involved from the perspective of these average citizens — almost all desperate for information and answers, and waiting, usually in vain, for an effective government response.

For instance, in Merrimack, New Hampshire, several women told the filmmaker, sometimes through tears, about the diseases or medical conditions they or family members have endured.

And it is obvious universal shock had rocked each community in the film when residents learned, many years after the fact, about PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) or similar contamination and all that would mean going forward.

On the medical side, PFOA has been associated through medical studies with testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and ulcerated colitis, among other diseases and conditions.

On the environmental front, it is called "the forever" chemical, because it apparently will never break down.

Much of the identified PFOA contamination has been traced by environmental officials to stack emissions from factories using the chemical in manufacturing, allowing it to build up in soils and water supplies over decades.

In the film, Hackett recounts meeting members of the Merrimack advocacy group and realizing fully the magnitude of PFAS contamination and the weak response to their plight from most elected officials. She said her mounting anger at that moment felt like "steam coming out of my ears" and that still helps drive her advocacy.

According to Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, and Hackett, who lives in a village where municipal and private wells were discovered to have been contaminated for years with toxic PFAS chemicals, there have been some positive developments in what has come to resemble a long Cold War-like struggle.

But the enormity of the problem is itself daunting, they said, especially given the overwhelmed and archaic toxic substances regulatory system in the United States.

"What was sort of frightening to me," Peterson said at one point, "was the suggestion that this is sort of the tip of the iceberg."

Some progress

Establishment of maximum levels of PFAS allowed in drinking water and similar legislation have passed in several states since 2015, Hackett said, although she said the federal Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration has blocked or delayed similar changes nationally.

"At least now it is starting," Hackett said. "The questions are starting to get asked."

Referring to Congress, where she has testified before committees on proposed legislation, Hackett said 36 bills now are pending although all appear blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"There were two bills when I first started a few years back," she said.

In addition, discussions are underway to fund through the military budget remediation work at military bases that use or once used firefighting foam containing PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid). An estimated 401 bases around the country are believed to require remediation, she said.

And a simple change in New York state law, she said, now requires more water testing for municipal systems with less than 10,000 users, which was not the case when PFAS traced to local factories built up in the small Hoosick Falls system — and most damaging in the blood of residents who drank the water.

Bond said he was encouraged "to see the collection of communities all asking the same questions, all struggling with `what is this thing and what do we do now?'"

He said Bennington College became involved in a similar manner in 2015 after Hoosick Falls residents approached Bond and others seeking information about PFOA, and a class on the subject, which continues today, was created.

Responses by the college included the Understanding PFOA initiative and numerous events, class projects and field studies, along with informational meetings on the Vermont contamination, its effects and the response from state officials.

The film depicts several of the community groups nationally that have led the way in pointing out PFAS pollution, and in pressing local, state and national figures to address the pollution and the medical issues that are likely to surface over time. A National PFAS Contamination Coalition also has formed to share ideas and resources.

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Like many community group members focused on PFAS issues elsewhere, Hackett is one of several Hoosick Falls area residents who've crash educated themselves on PFAS and its effects. She and other local residents also have traveled to conferences on the PFAS and to testify before legislative and congressional committees considering bills.

Daunting task

Bond pointed out that PFAS chemicals are unlike other widely used contaminants, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), solvents or petroleum products, which slowly break down in the atmosphere. PFAS chemicals — of which there are thousands of versions — are known as "forever chemicals," he said, in that they are easily water soluble and virtually indestructible.

PFOA or similar substances can be destroyed at very high temperatures, he said, but since it has spread over many years primarily through airborne factory emissions, and has built up in soils and groundwater at sites nationally, such a disposal method is impractical.

He said it might take an absurdly drastic change on the order of glaciation (when glaciers built up over thousands of years and spread south, scraping off soil cover and depositing it elsewhere) to address the ongoing threats posed by these chemicals.

Beyond that, Bond said, the regulatory system in the U.S. — as opposed to that of the European Union — has been exposed as grossly inadequate to deal with PFAS, or with many of the 80,000 or so other unregulated industrial chemicals.

The premise here is that a chemical must be proven to be dangerous before it is regulated, which is a process that can take years for each chemical. In the EU, chemicals typically are considered dangerous or toxic, Bond said, until the manufacturer proves otherwise.

In the U.S. now, "there is no silver bullet; there is no easy solution at this point," he said.

PFOA (used from the 1950s until recently in nonstick consumer products like Teflon-coated pans), and the other widely used related chemical, PFOS, primarily was used in firefighting foam at military airbases, civilian airports and in other firefighting situations. Those have largely been discontinued by major manufacturers through an agreement with the federal government.

But there is no such agreement or ban affecting the thousands of other PFAS chemicals or compounds.

Hackett said two Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics-owned plants in Hoosick Falls are now using so-called next generation PFAS chemicals in manufacturing, and some of those substances were detected in a recent round of resident blood tests.

Officials don't know what the effects will be, she said, any more than they did of the PFOA and PFOS substances now associated with multiple diseases or conditions.

Bond said the situation is like "whack a mole," in which manufacturers are "turning to the chemical right next door" in terms of formula.

"All of this shows the limits of [current U.S.] chemical regulation," he said.

Illustrating how difficult and slow-moving the fight for changes can be, Hackett noted that air stack testing on the existing Hoosick Falls factories was only undertaken in March 2019 and the results still haven't been released.

In addition, the panelists pointed out the enormous cost of dealing with PFOA or similar contaminants, which makes manufacturers reluctant to even accept responsibility — and often leads to industry pressure on lawmakers to maintain the status quo.

In Bennington, two former ChemFab Corp. factories that haven't operated since 2002 contaminated hundreds of private wells. Those problems were discovered in early 2016, shortly after the Hoosick Falls contamination was verified through testing.

In response, the state of Vermont, which is considered a model for government response to these issues, negotiated two consent agreements with the company deemed responsible — the final owner of the business, Saint-Gobain — that cost the company more than $40 million for new municipal water lines to those with contaminated wells.

A private class-action lawsuit also in pending in U.S. District Court against Saint-Gobain over the PFOA impacts in Bennington.

State responses vary

The film shows how some community groups in Michigan and New Hampshire have had to fight local and state officials to have water and residents' blood tested, and beyond that for remediation work or new sources of clean water.

In Hoosick Falls, local and state officials at first downplayed what later was seen as a major pollution issue, but Hackett said both entities later became responsive to resident concerns.

In Vermont, there also have been attempts to pass legislation allowing long-term medical monitoring costs for those with elevated levels of PFAS and that is a claim as well in the class action suit.

While no specific level of PFOA in the blood is identified with one or more diseases or conditions, those levels go down only over many years, and health officials advise continued screening for those illnesses.

The pervasiveness of PFOA is shown in the estimate that almost every human now has at least a trace in their blood. Most people in the film, however, had test results well above such levels — into an area where they are now considered at risk of one or more associated diseases.

Many residents drinking contaminated water in Hoosick Falls, including Hackett and members of her family, and in Bennington, in homes around the former ChemFab plants, and in Petersburgh, New York, around a factory there, had PFOA blood levels well into that range.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien     


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