Hoosick Falls native produces PFAS documentary

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HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. — A Hoosick Falls native says he was inspired by PFAS contamination of water supplies in his home town to create a documentary he hopes will serve as a primer for communities around the nation facing a similar environmental and health crisis.

Victor Pytko, a 1963 graduate of Hoosick Falls Central School, and Ed Gardiner, of Detroit-based One-Eyed Bear Productions, produced the film, "Bad Water. Small Town. Deaf Ears: Everything You Need to Know About PFAS But Don't Know How to Ask."

During a telephone interview, Pytko said work on the documentary, began in early 2017, with interviews involving residents in Hoosick Falls and Merrimack, N.H.

After living in the Midwest for decades and now residing in Detroit, Pytko said he knew little about contamination issues involving PFAS chemicals until his niece, Loreen Hackett, of Hoosick Falls, alerted him and asked for his help in spreading the word.

"She strongly urged me to do something on the PFAS crisis," he said. "She really conned me into it, but then I got hooked."

"I bombarded the poor man for a good six months," Hackett said this week, laughing. "I tried to catch him up on this; it is so overwhelming. Then it [PFAS] popped up in Michigan where he lives."

Hackett, who appears in the film in a segment about Hoosick Falls, is a leading advocate in the area for solutions to the water contamination and health issues, such as cancer, that are associated with some PFAS chemicals.

She maintains the pfoaprojectny Twitter site, which provides regular updates on PFAS issues.

Manmade PFAS chemicals (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have emerged as a serious contaminate in the eyes of federal and state environmental regulators only over the past decade, although the substances were used in manufacturing and numerous consumer products for more than 50 years.

In Hoosick Falls, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) was found at significant levels in the village well-fed water system and in hundreds of private wells, likely stemming from several manufacturing sites in the village.

The PFOA levels now are being controlled through water filtering systems while long-term solutions to the contamination are considered. Meanwhile, PFOA levels in the blood of those who drank the water is known to go down slowly over many years.

PFAS substances also are easily soluble in groundwater and are not believed to dissipate in the environment for as long as several hundred years.

Hoosick Falls and Merrimack are dealing with similar drinking water contamination traced by environmental officials to industrial plants that used PFAS, primarily PFOA, which was associated with the use of Teflon coatings. Other PFAS substances have been used in firefighting foam, Scotchgard and a number of other water-resistant products.

Pytko said interviews for the film also conducted in Oscoda and in the Rockford/Belmont areas of Michigan, where PFAS contamination was traced to an Air Force facility and a tannery dump site.

"Our goal was to create a PFAS primer for residents of small communities who had few resources to work with," said Pytko said. "Residents' stories detail the denials and resistance, misinformation, ignorance ... even lies and cover-ups by those who had health effect data but wouldn't share it."

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Gardiner said in a release that the documentary shows that "the residents' fights for remediation, substitute drinking water, medical bills and lost property values continue today, and their testimonies can serve as case studies."

Ingestion of PFAS chemicals has been associated through a large-scale study focusing on the Ohio Valley region around a DuPont facility that manufactured Teflon using PFOA with such illnesses and conditions as kidney, testicular and thyroid cancer, high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis.

In Hoosick Falls, PFOA contamination of the village's well-water system came to light in 2014, after resident and former village trustee Michael Hickey paid privately for tests of the water.

The discovery of a water crisis in Hoosick Falls and nearby Petersburgh, N.Y., around another factory there, led to testing in Bennington, Vt., in early 2016 around two former ChemFab Corp. Those mills coated fabrics with Teflon and dried the material at high temperature, producing emissions Vermont officials believe contaminated wells over a wide swatch of Bennington.

Pytko said he had his own close encounter with PFAS in manufacturing when he worked for the summer in 1964 at a former factory in Hoosick Falls, one of several sites in the village that used PFAS materials in manufacturing.

That factory manufactured plumber's tape, he said, or the white, elastic strip material that is wrapped around the joints of piping to create a tighter fit. Pytko said he remembers one employee working with blocks of the Teflon powder that was used to coat the tape and the man having it on his hands and clothes during break times — and that the worker later died of cancer.

Later that year, Pytko said, he went off to college at the Indiana University, and he has lived in the Midwest since then.

Pytko has worked as a photojournalist and weekly newspaper editor and in public relations. He said his interest in filmmaking stems from projects he undertook for business clients like Mazda Motor Corp. and from a lifelong interest in film, dating to his boyhood and 8 mm home movies.

Pytko said the filmmakers would have liked to do more editing and other work on the documentary but they were operating on a $2,500 budget after a GoFundMe appeal hoping to raise $50,000 failed to produce more funding.

But he believes the 86-minute video, if is shared widely, could have a strong impact by preparing communities for what to expect — and how to proceed — when they encounter PFAS pollution and the typical obstacles set out by industries and often political leaders anxious to protect factory jobs.

Hackett said she put Pytko in touch with some of the community group members she has come to know around the country, including in Merrimack, which she urged him to visit.

"It is such a horrific process," Hackett said of discovering and then attempting to deal with such environmental and health issues where one lives, not to mention the effects on property values and a community's image after PFAS contamination is announced.

Fighting for clean drinking water and funding to address health and other issues "is going to be an ongoing battle," she said. "And [PFAS] is popping up in more and more places all the time, day after day."

Personally, she said, she has battled cancer and her family members had some of the highest levels locally of PFOA found in their blood.

While progress on PFAS issues has sometimes been slow, Hackett said she feels momentum building nationally and expects significant legislative action over the coming year. But Hackett doesn't expect too much to emanate from the Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency, but from a number of states, including New York.

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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