The New York state Department of Health is extending the PFOS blood testing program for Newburgh by eight weeks. PFOS drinking water contamination came to light in May 2016 and blood testing began in November. The news came one day after Newburgh’s city manager called for continuing the program beyond its end date.
State Health Department Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Public Health Brad Hutton says the free blood testing that was slated to end October 31 will be extended to December 31.
“The issue is that we’re reaching the point where we’re beginning to see that results for residents who were tested more recently have lower levels than persons who were tested in the past. And that’s totally expected,” Hutton says. “It’s now been actually almost 18 months since the city’s water system was moved from Lake Washington to Browns Pond and then on to the New York City Aqueduct, so residents are no longer exposed to PFOS in the water.”
He says to continue testing into the new year could skew results to depict lower levels of PFOS exposure than was the case. To date, Hutton says 3,286 people in the Newburgh area have had their blood levels tested out of 5,320 who expressed interest. Hutton says the Newburgh effort is one of the largest blood testing initiatives ever performed in the U.S. But Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino, while commending DOH efforts, says the initiative does not go far enough. And his concerns are twofold.
“We believe that only a small percentage of our population has actually been tested and, secondly, that we believe that more could be done with outreach, coordinated with the City of Newburgh, or course, but also with the Department of Health and possibly any other agencies that can assist with a new creative approach to marketing the needs and the opportunity to have blood tested,” says Ciaravino.
The day before the state Health Department announced the program’s extension, Ciaravino released a letter he’d written to State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker asking for no end date until enough people have been tested and an improved outreach effort was in place. Again, Hutton.
“We’ve really gone above and beyond to create and distribute promotional materials and translate them into multiple languages to work with local partners in the city,” says Hutton.
For example, state health officials produced information cards about Newburgh’s drinking water and PFOS in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. Ciaravino says the cards were a good idea but, overall, outreach efforts must be more robust, longer-term and involve much more of the diverse and difficult-to-reach population to be effective and help protect lives.
“Rather than say, okay, let’s fold up the tent, let’s stop doing testing, looks like there’s no more interest in Newburgh, I think it’s precisely the opposite message, is, what are we doing that is not effective and how can we at least experiment with these other creative opportunities,” Ciaravino says.
His ideas include mass blood testing drives at easily accessible community centers, working with trusted members of the community, such as pastors, and the following.
“We even broached the topic with the DOH of a sound truck with a big billboard on it that we could go up and down streets with music and a message and an opportunity for people to just come out, just gather their basic information at that time and possibly have the blood mobile in tow that can do testing,” says Ciaravino.
Hutton says the department feels it has acted strongly in promoting the availability of the blood testing program.
“It just might be that we’ve reached the point where all those who are interested have been tested and the remainder are satisfied not having their own individual blood level,” Hutton says. “Some people have cynicism participating in a blood-testing program.”
There will be a public session October 10 to discuss blood testing, and private well testing investigations in the Towns of Newburgh and New Windsor. The sessions will be held at the SUNY Orange Newburgh Campus, Kaplan Hall, from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m.