New York State Department of Health officials were on hand in Newburgh Wednesday night to discuss the first set of PFOS blood testing results. The blood testing program began in November following news last May of the city’s PFOS drinking water contamination.
Health Department Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Public Health Brad Hutton says the results covered the first 370 people who were tested and are higher than the national average for PFOS blood levels.
“National average currently is five,” says Hutton. “Here in Newburgh the levels we saw were 18-20, on average.”
He says results are lower than for comparable communities, in Alabama and Minnesota, in 2000, 2008 and 2010. The results show levels for six different PFCs, or perflourinated chemicals. Hutton says PFOS takes 5 to 7 years for the blood level to drop in half. Town of Newburgh resident Kenneth Ketchum chimed in.
“I’m concerned about 5-12 years down the line because my wife and I moved here from the city [New York] to avoid these toxins. So we as environmental activists get a victory by shutting down Indian Point, but now I got to worry about the water that I don’t’ even live in,” Ketchum says. “I’m just going to the best health food restaurant in Newburgh. That’s my only association and contact with the water and I have a measurable level.”
Levels ran as low as nearly non-detectable to as high as around 100. So far, 740 people have been tested. Hutton says 3,500 individuals have signed up for blood testing, have been contacted and will receive via mail a physician’s order to get tested at one of the Newburgh sites recently announced as part of an expanded program. He emphasized that PFOS levels are indicators and do not determine health outcomes.
“We’re trying to put it in context and really there are a lot of limitations out there. While we know that there’s the potential for some health effects, there’s little known about the likelihood that those health effects will occur depending on the level of exposure,” Hutton says. “And so we tried to do our best tonight to give the best information based on the science to community members.”
Hutton urged residents to consult with their doctors about the results. Newburgh City Councilwoman Karen Mejia wore a black t-shirt that read “PFOS” in white letters in the front and “What’s Your Level” on the back.
“And this is to remind individuals that you really need to get tested,” says Mejia. “So we have a coalition of individuals on a volunteer basis that, again, are here to help the Department of Health do a grassroots outreach that has not been done, and I wish that they would use us more.”
City of Newburgh resident Stuart Sachs, also donning the PFOS shirt, received his results showing a 25.3 PFOS level.
“Well, I have a high level of a very toxic compound in my body, so that’s a concern,” Sachs says. “Not knowing exactly what it’s going to do is another concern.”
Other residents wanted to be able to use the blood level number to determine a health condition. Others accused state health officials of softening potential impacts or politicizing the issue. The health department’s Hutton responds.
“Well, I think the lack of science and the lack of evidence can really be frustrating, especially for an individual who has a lab test with a number on it,” says Hutton. “However, it’s our responsibility as public health professionals to really present the best information that’s out there, even with its warts and its limitations, and we really try and do that to the best of our ability and understand the frustration and anxiety. We’re going to be here in Newburgh for months to come to really support them as we learn more and more about this compound.”
Mejia says there are still so many residents to reach in the city of about 30,000.
“It’s really great to see a lot of folks who showed up because they have gotten their test results. It’s almost like the wake-up call that I think the community needed. I’m sitting here with the fact that 370 individuals is what we had a whole discussion around. That’s a very low number in terms of a sample, right. I am looking forward to the next six months for that to be at least over the 1,000, maybe 3,000 mark, because I think that that’s where you’re going to start to get the accurate data,” Mejia says. “I have a hunch that we’re not at the median, 20 is not our number, and it’s because the majority of the population has not gotten tested.”
Sachs says Newburgh, with a significant poor population, is a difficult city to penetrate.
“Getting to these people who are living day to day, worrying more about their next meal than they are about long-term health effects, frankly, poison in their body is probably the least of their concerns, so, yeah, getting to those people is very difficult,” says Sachs.
State health officials are holding a second informational session on blood test results February 28 from 10 a.m. until noon, at the SUNY Orange Newburgh campus. The DOH dedicated Newburgh PFOS hotline is 1-800-801-8092.