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Public Health Advisory: On Water and Waste

Because he is a physician working in Vermont, yesterday my husband received a public health advisory from the state Department of Health, concerning PFOA in private drinking water wells in Bennington and North Bennington. PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid or C8, of course, is the perfluorinated chemical and suspected carcinogen used in the manufacturing of Teflon products — in this case, specialty coated fabrics at the former ChemFab manufacturing facility in North Bennington. The DOH wanted physicians to know the preliminary results of blood sampling that had been conducted for 477 residents living near the former ChemFab facility, and what health screening tests should be considered for any of their patients with PFOA in their blood.

Blood testing results ranged from 0.3 micrograms/liter (or ppb, parts per billion) to 1,125.6 micrograms/liter or ppb, and the geometric mean of PFOA in blood among the sampled residents was 10 ppb — five times higher than the geometric mean of PFOA believed to be present in the blood of most Americans (which is 2.1 ppb, a figure likely resulting from our ubiquitous exposure to Teflon chemicals that were present in everyday consumer products: nonstick coated cookware, stain-resistant carpets and upholstery, water-resistant clothing, paper and cardboard food packaging, and fire-fighting foam). The health advisory went on to list the known health effects reported with exposure to PFOA, and requested of my husband: “If you have a patient that you think is experiencing health effects due to PFOA exposure, please call us at 1-800-439-8550.”

In general, the higher the PFOA concentrations in drinking water, the higher the PFOA concentration in blood. Some studies have even shown that PFOA levels in blood serum can be up to 100 times higher than the levels found in drinking water — meaning that if someone has 2,000 ppt (parts per trillion) in their drinking water, the anticipated level of PFOA in their blood might be as high as 200,000 ppt (or 200 ppb), an order of magnitude difference.

Why? Because PFOA is like, well, Teflon… resistant, persistent, hard-to-break-down. The half-life of PFOA is between 2-4 years, which means it takes up residence in the body and accumulates faster than the body can expel it — doing what exactly, we’re still not sure, except perhaps, as suggested by the limited epidemiological evidence compiled so far, wreaking havoc on the thyroid, the kidneys, the intestines, the liver. In other words, a baby born with PFOA in its blood has essentially become a chemical harbor until it grows up to be a toddler, or even a preschooler, before PFOA can be completely evicted from its system. Assuming, of course, that the exposure has been removed.

When my husband was first studying to become a physician, he was required to take a class on the history of medicine. I can remember him showing me a graph of total fatalities mapped over time, and pointing to a distinct drop in the curve — a place where something had caused some miraculous reduction in deaths from infectious disease. What was it? Antibiotics? Vaccines? Nope. It was sanitation. Removal of waste from drinking water resources. According to an article on longevity published in Slate.com, “Clean water may be the biggest lifesaver in history. Some historians attribute one-half of the overall reduction in mortality, two-thirds of the reduction in child mortality, and three-fourths of the reduction in infant mortality to clean water.” The discovery of penicillin appeared to yield but a relative blip on the graph my husband showed me, as did the proliferation of vaccines (not to diminish the importance of either to the improvement of public health), but nothing impacted public health with such magnitude as the removal of waste from water. “The garbage man does more to save lives than I ever will,” my husband said.

In Parkersburg, West Virginia, a place considered by many to be ground zero for PFOA-related contamination and injury, DuPont dumped thousands of tons of PFOA into the Ohio River, unlined ponds and beyond, causing widespread contamination of surface and drinking water resources in Parkersburg and surrounding communities. In Hoosick Falls, New York, mishandling of PFOA at the Saint-Gobain plastics facility around the corner from the water supply well on Water Works Road has resulted in contamination of the community water supply. Investigation of the former ChemFab facility will do doubt yield similar findings about disposal of PFOA materials, and during my latest trip to Pownal, Vermont, I was shocked to see that the proximity of the former Mack Molding plastics site to one of the community’s water supply wells was a mere 1,000 feet.

Contamination of drinking water from industrial waste is not a new issue, but these latest developments with PFOA raise the issue yet again, that in this day of modern medicine and sophisticated cancer treatment technologies, we continue to ignore the basic, most fundamental premise of medicine: that the most significant positive impact on human health is the separation of waste from water.

Of course, the implementation of Superfund laws and clean-up programs, and the cradle-to-grave hazardous waste regulations provide some measure of protection, but the exemptions are plenty and the funding is not. Too many waste disposal sites are left festering due to insufficient funds and political commitment for investigation and remediation, and too many water supplies remain in harm’s way.  I keep wondering, after each new discovery of contaminated drinking water wells, of impacted populations whose ailments will likely be traced back to what they drank — I keep wondering if we are ever going to wake up to this fundamental premise of public health.



About Mary Heather

I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.


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