Bennington College To Study PFOA As Investigations Continue

Mar 16, 2016

Bennington College has received a $90,000 grant to study the chemical PFOA, which has been found in surrounding water sources. WAMC's Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard spoke with faculty at the college who will be guiding research into a subject with many unknowns.

In February, the National Science Foundation awarded Bennington College a Rapid Response grant to support new research into perflurooctanoic acid.

A relatively understudied chemical, it has been linked to serious health effects including cancer.

David Bond, Associate Director for the Center for Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, said the college applied for the grant last December after the presence of PFOA in drinking water in nearby Hoosick Falls began grabbing headlines. It wasn’t long before the chemical used in manufacturing insulating and non-stick materials was found in North Bennington. And now, Vermont reportedly will be testing for the chemical in Pownal.

At Bennington College, a new course will be created and study of the chemical will be brought into existing coursework. Bond hopes the research done by students and faculty can help guide more communities that will make a similar discovery.

“Unfortunately we seem to be at the very tip of the iceberg with PFOA,” said Bond. “But we think this is also an opportunity for Bennington College to lead the way in training students and communities to navigate the discovery of PFOA in their drinking water. We hope some of the work we do will empower those communities to begin to ask better questions of state and local leaders when PFOA is discovered in their water.”

In North Bennington, the source of the contaminant found in well-water is being linked to the former Chemfab plant. The facility is owned by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics but was shut down in 2002.

This week, Governor Peter Shumlin’s officed announced PFOA levels above the state health department’s threshold of 20 parts per trillion were detected in 52 of 67 wells sampled in a 1.5-mile radius of the Chemfab plant. Results from soil testing are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

Tim Schroeder, a professor of geology and environmental science, said researchers will investigate why the chemical is still being found in surrounding wells years later.

“If PFOA was just moving through as a purely water-soluble compound, it should have flushed out there by now because it hasn’t been used in 14 years. So, clearly, it is adhering to particles in the soil either above the water table or possibly below the water table in the actual groundwater,” said Schroeder.

One of the key questions the research will attempt to answer is finding a safe level for the chemical in the environment.

The governors of Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire have written a joint letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish universal exposure thresholds, which, for now, vary from state to state.

Governor Shumlin has called federal law broken, and this week Governor Cuomo, in defending the New York state health department’s response to the crisis in Hoosick Falls, called out the lack of federal oversight.

"EPA says 100. Vermont has 20. Which is it? 100 or is it 20 for long-term exposure? And we're saying in the letter with the Vermont governor we need clarification with that. And by the way, just pick it! You have the scientists, EPA. We want a national standard because this should not be a question for anyone," said Cuomo.

Chemistry professor Janet Foley hopes the research at Bennington College will help lead to better oversight elsewhere.

“This may really spur a lot of new research and trying to really focus on how much is really a problem biologically and environmentally,” said Flynn.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation was scheduled to meet with community members Wednesday at 6 to review the latest findings and answer questions at Tishman Lecture Hall at Bennington College.  The state health department will continue to notify well owners of test results.