Judith Enck: Toxic Legacy

Sep 21, 2017

On a recent beautiful Saturday afternoon, I joined a group of professors from Bennington College who were going door to door in Hoosick Falls.   We were asking residents to fill out a new health questionnaire.

Listeners of WAMC are probably familiar with the problem of toxic contamination of drinking water in  Hoosick Falls, nearby Petersburg and North Bennington, Vermont.  Public water supplies and private wells have been contaminated with the toxic chemical, PFOA.

These local communities now have carbon filters on their water supply which is a short- term solution.  All of these communities deserve a new water supply that is not reliant on carbon filters. It should be clean at the source and the polluters should pay.

But the reason I was knocking on doors was to urge residents to fill out a new health questionnaire that has been launched by a research team at Bennington College, a local physician, a local environmental engineer and myself.

We don’t know how long people had been drinking contaminated water.

PFOA is  persistent in the environment and builds up in our blood if we drink contaminated water or breathe air that contains PFOA.

PFOA has been carefully studied.   An independent group of scientists looked at what happened when thousands of people consumed water with PFOA  in West Virginia.   The scientists  found a probable link between exposure to PFOA and 6 illnesses:  Kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and diagnosed high cholesterol.

Those are the illnesses included in this new local questionnaire.   Current and former residents of these communities can go to the website:  www.bennington.edu/PFOA to fill out the questionnaire or call 802 375 3013 to have one mailed to them.

The deadline to fill it out is November 1st.  It only takes about 3 minutes to fill it out.

While I was in Hoosick Falls I was  impressed with how well informed every single person was who I spoke with.  Most people were not only  willing but eager to cooperate. 

Two encounters have really stuck with me.

I spoke to a young man who looked to be in his early 20’s.  He did the questionnaire and then asked me if I wanted to know the level of PFOA in his blood. I told him it wasn’t one of the questions we were asking but if he didn’t mind telling me, sure.  He told me, and it was high. He then rattled off the PFOA blood levels of his mother and father, and they were even higher.  As I was driving home I thought about how tragic it is that he could rattle off these blood level numbers like it was his own phone number.

At another home I met a wonderful woman who, once she told me her name,  I knew that she lost a family member to one of the cancers.  I was very hesitant to ask her to do the questionnaire, but also knew that we needed the information for the research.  With tremendous grace and poise, she shared this information about her loved one. 

This legacy of toxic pollution affects real people. 

The polluters that created this mess must pick up the pace and pay for a full and comprehensive clean up, including a new drinking water supply.  The people of these communities deserve nothing less.

Judith Enck is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.   She recently served as Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, appointed by President Barack Obama.

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