Understanding PFOA


In 2014, the chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid (C8 or PFOA) was discovered in the public drinking water of Hoosick Falls, NY. As concern over this contaminant grew, other nearby communities began testing their drinking water. As of August 2017, PFOA has been detected in alarming levels in the municipal water supply of three towns in New York and Vermont and in over a thousand private residential wells in the region. (The public water system of North Bennington, where Bennington College gets its water, has tested free of PFOA.)

PFOA was once a key ingredient in the manufacture of high-performance plastics like Teflon and Gore-Tex. Today PFOA and related per- and poly-fluorinated compounds—once celebrated for their inertness—are coming into new focus as an intricate human health risk that operates on the scale of parts per trillion and unfolds over the course of decades. These dimensions, the granular scale of risk, and the extended timeframe of injury, have made PFOA a new kind of problem for environmental science and policy. These concerns have pointed urgency in the impacted communities in our region.

In response to this local environmental crisis, the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College has engaged the issue on a number of fronts. David Bond, the associate director of CAPA, along with faculty members Janet Foley and Tim Schroeder, have been awarded two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to bring the analytical resources of the science classroom into conversation with community concerns about PFOA. As PFOA was first discovered in communities across our region, Bond, Foley, and Schroeder received a $90,000 NSF RAPID Response Grant to offer a new course—“Understanding PFOA”—on the properties, pathways, and policy concerns surrounding PFOA. Alongside Bennington students, this class was opened to high school teachers, nurses, local journalists, and community members from Hoosick Falls and Bennington. This class was offered as a primer on PFOA that could equip students and citizens alike to better navigate the very complicated science of PFOA, to produce data more attuned to local concerns, and to demand better protections for water resources moving forward.

Expanding on these early engagements, in June 2017 Bond, Foley, and Schroeder were awarded a $300,000 NSF Grant that will support additional courses on PFOA, original research on PFOA contamination in our region, and new collaborations with state agencies, local public schools, and regional colleges and universities. This current three-year project will equip the science classroom to answer community concerns about PFOA, and aims to provide a new educational model of the civic value of science education in times of environmental uncertainty.

CAPA has also hosted public meetings to facilitate dialogue between concerned residents and Vermont state officials. Lastly, CAPA and Environmental Studies at Bennington are also sponsoring a lecture series on PFOA that brings leading voices on the science and policy of PFOA to campus for public talks; recent guests include David Andrews, Senior Scientist with the Environmental Working Group; Laura MacManus-Spencer, chemistry professor at Union College; Brendan Lyons, senior investigative reporter at the Albany Times Union; Joyce Donahue, Senior Health Scientist at the EPA, Chris Higgins, associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and attorney Robert Bilott, among others.

What is PFOA?

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA or C8) is a man-made chemical that is persistent, mobile, and toxic. Once a major ingredient in the manufacture of fire-fighting foams and high-performance plastics like Teflon or Gore-Tex, in the 2000s PFOA came under scrutiny as exposure was correlated to adverse health effects, most notable in workers at plants in Alabama and West Virginia and among residents of the Ohio River valley. Ten years ago, the major US producers of PFOA agreed to voluntarily eliminate PFOA by 2015. Despite the phase-out, a substantial amount of PFOA remains in the environment. In 2016, the EPA established a health advisory guideline for PFOA in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion for long-term exposure (70 ppt can be described as a quarter teaspoon in an Olympic-sized pool). A growing number of lawsuits and toxicology studies are providing new insight into PFOA, which is water-soluble, resists photo- and bio-degradation, is chemically stable in water for nearly a century, is readily absorbed into the body when consumed, has a half-life of 2–7 years in the human body, and bio-accumulates in serum, kidneys, and the liver. Recent laboratory and epidemiological studies have strongly correlated exposure to PFOA with a number of adverse health effects, including developmental problems, reproductive harm, and kidney, bladder, and testicular cancer. At a meeting last year, the United Nations began considering a worldwide ban on PFOA. As the EPA summarizes: “the toxicity, mobility, and bioaccumulation” of PFOA poses urgent and difficult questions for safeguarding human heath in areas where PFOA has been released in the environment.

Public Resources on PFOA

Vermont PFOA Resources

  • VT Department of Health, “Facts about PFOA Contamination in North Bennington” (2016)
    Q and A about PFOA addressing prominent concerns.
  • VT Department of Environmental Conservation, “North Bennington PFOA Contamination Updates” (2016)
    Information clearinghouse for situation in North Bennington, with background on the site (ChemFab), links to federal agencies reports on PFOA, list of EPA certified laboratories for PFOA tests, maps of current sampling area, summary of test results, and the latest press releases.

Federal Assessments of PFOA

  • EPA, “Fact Sheet–PFOS and PFOA” (2016)
    This document summarizes the state of science around the “toxicity, mobility, and bioaccumulation” of PFOA, reviewing what is currently known about the chemical properties and environmental pathways of PFOA, what risk it poses to human health, what guidelines different states and federal agencies have adopted around PFOA, and what technologies are available to treat PFOA contaminated water. PFOA has been classified as an “emerging contaminant” by the EPA, a classification that works to both acknowledge the probable dangers of a chemical and the lack of enforceable standards to limit its use. PFOA has been under review at the EPA since the late 1990s, with key summaries of studied health risks published in 2003, 2009, 2014, and 2016 (this document). In 2004, the EPA successfully prosecuted DuPont over PFOA; the company documented PFOA contamination in groundwater around its plant and in the blood of local residents but did nothing. The resulting $10.25 million settlement was the largest administrative penalty the EPA has ever received. In 2006, the EPA facilitated a voluntary phase-out of PFOA among the eight leading fluoropolymer manufactures, with a 95% reduction in production by 2010 and a total elimination of PFOA by 2015. The EPA continues to work towards a more robust understanding of the environmental and health risks of PFOA, an understanding that will allow it to take more forceful action to ban or limit PFOA in the United States.
  • National Institute of Environmental Health, “Perfluorinated Chemicals” (2012)
    Introduction to environmental health concerns surrounding PFOA.
  • Public Health Service, “Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls” (2015)
    Extensive review of existing toxicological data on PFOA.

PFOA and Public Health

PFOA in the Environment

Other State Guidelines and Resources for PFOA

Journalistic Coverage on PFOA

Responses to PFOA in Other Communities

Home Water Filtration Systems for PFOA

In 2008, Minnesota conducted tests on point-of-use water filters to measure their ability to reduce perfluorochemicals, including PFOA, in drinking water. Seven filtration systems were found to reduce PFOA levels in drinking water. These devices include:

Activated Carbon Devices
  • Aquion Rainsoft Hydrefiner (P-12 9878)
  • Culligan RC-EZ-4
  • Kinetico MACguard 7500
  • Sears Kenmore (Elite 625.385010)
Reverse Osmosis Devices
  • Culligan Aqua Cleer
  • 3M/CUNO/Water Factory SQC-3 (04-045)
  • EcoWater ERO-375E-CP
  • GE Smartwater (GXRM10GBL)
  • Kinetico Plus Deluxe VX
  • Pentair RO 3500-EX w/GS
  • Watts (Premier WP-4V)

International Response to PFOA

September 8, 2017: Bennington Faculty Host PFOA Information Session with Petersburgh, NY Residents

Over forty residents of Petersburgh, NY packed the Town Hall last Friday evening for an information session on PFOA contamination hosted by Bennington Faculty David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder.

Invited by local residents, Bond, Foley, and Schroeder shared relevant findings from their research project “Understanding PFOA,” addressed questions from residents, and explored ways of engaging their research with community concerns. Bennington Faculty were joined by Chemistry Professor Laura Mac-Manus-Spencer of Union College.

Whether in discussing variation in PFOA levels in a single well over the course of a year or in reviewing preliminary findings that suggest the shallow soil in our region may be acting as an unexpectedly large reservoir of PFOA or in responding to concerns about the present emissions of alternative perfluorinated compounds at local facilities, this information session worked to bring unfolding research into PFOA contamination in our region into conversation with resident’s questions and community concerns.

“Unlikely other communities impacted by PFOA in our region, residents of Petersburgh have sometimes struggled to get the attention and resources they deserve. Many residents still have urgent questions about the nature of PFOA contamination and how the community can best protect its water resources going forward,” said David Bond, Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College.

While the research project “Understanding PFOA” has been working with individual residents of Petersburgh for the past 15 months, this was the first time the project was able to engage the community. Petersburgh residents were also invited to sit in on a primer class on PFOA that will be offered in the Spring at Bennington College.

“It was a productive event and I hope we can come back in the coming months with better answers to the resident’s really important questions,” Bond said.

Petersburgh image 1

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May 19–20, 2017: Taconic Mountain Student Water Conference — PFOA

This conference, co-convened by David Bond (Bennington College) and Ken Facin (Hoosick Falls Central School District) and hosted by Bennington College, introduced advanced high school students from our region to the problems and opportunities that define our water resources. Our inaugural conference focused on PFOA.

Full conference schedule and videos of panels can be found here.

April 27, 2017: Vermont ANR Community Meeting on PFOA

Bennington College hosted a public meeting on PFOA on Thursday, April 27th. At this meeting, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) updated the community about ongoing negotiations with Saint Gobain and reviewed the state’s current analysis of the nature and scope of PFOA contamination in our region. ANR Secretary Julie Moore applauded the “very active” work of Bennington College in responding to this nearby environmental problem.

Bennington College faculty David Bond and Tim Schroeder also provided an update of their ongoing research into PFOA in our environment.

June 29, 2016: Meeting Held to Update the Community on PFOA Research

On Wednesday, June 29, the Vermont state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) hosted a community meeting at Bennington College to discuss the ongoing PFOA issue in the region.

David Bond, the principal investigator and associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), provided an update on the College’s work thus far:

  • The College has trained 20 students and 8 community members (including superintendent of Hoosick Falls Central School District and high school teachers) in the chemistry, geology, and policy issues that inform PFOA groundwater contamination.
  • The College has collected 50 water samples and analyzing them for perfluorinated compounds like PFOA (22 from North Bennington, 7 from Petersburgh, 6 from Hoosick Falls, and 6 from Eagle Bridge; the samples were taken from 32 residential wells, 15 surface waters, and 2 maple trees).
  • The College has hosting a public lecture series bringing national voices on PFOA to our community, with additional notable speakers planned for the fall term.
  • The College has put together a public website with scholarly and journalistic resources on PFOA for the community.

Commissioner Schuren, Chuck Schwer of the Division of Waste Management and Prevention, and Richard Spiese, hazardous sites manager for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and point person for the efforts in Bennington, North Bennington, and Shaftsbury, praised work of the College, and emphasized how helpful it is to the state to have a local partner working on the issue.

April 1, 2016: Update on the Results of Surface Water Tests for PFOA

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin released the results of tests for the presence of PFOA in Bennington-area waterways, including the pond on Bennington College's campus. While Bennington College's pond is not used for swimming, fishing, or other in-water recreation, the pond sample showed PFOA concentrations of 79 parts per trillion. This level is well below what state officials consider to be safe for humans and wildlife in surface water. It is also important to note that the College's drinking water is provided by the municipal water source, which has tested clean of PFOA. The state is in the process of conducting soil testing. We will share that information when we receive it. The College will continue to monitor the situation closely.

March 16, 2016: President Silver’s Update on North Bennington Water Situation

We wanted to share news of the North Bennington private well-water situation, which many of you may have heard about in the media.

The New York Times ran a story yesterday on the PFOA found in some private wells in North Bennington and other communities in the Northeast. Importantly, the municipal water supplies for Bennington and North Bennington (the source of water for the entire Bennington College campus and all its off-campus properties) have tested clean; these findings have been confirmed by independent labs testing multiple samples.

The state of Vermont's response has been remarkably rapid and transparent. The Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has been in North Bennington every week, and the Governor was on campus last week to meet with local community members. He reiterated his commitment to aggressively addressing this situation. It is also worth noting that the state of Vermont's standards for water purity are very strict and exceed the federal guidelines.

While not directly affected, the College is committed to providing the community with multiple levels of support, including its intellectual resources. Our faculty experts are helping people locally and farther afield understand what is known and what questions to ask about PFOA as this issue becomes relevant to communities across the nation, and the College is hosting public meetings for the community. Last week, the National Science Foundation awarded the College a Rapid Response grant of $90,000 for several faculty members to study PFOA. The grant enables the College to offer a course this spring and fall to students and community members, and for our research to inform affected communities throughout the country. In addition, we continue to field inquiries from local and national media outlets following the announcement of the NSF grant; faculty members David Bond, Janet Foley, Tim Schroeder, and Susan Sgorbati have been enormously responsive and informative as this situation has unfolded.

Feb 25, 2016: President Silver's Update on North Bennington Water Supply

Governor Shumlin reported today on recent testing for potential water contamination in North Bennington: “The public water supply has been tested and is not affected.” The public water supply is the water source for the entire Bennington College campus.

However, the governor also reported that tests of some commercial and individual household wells in the area do show varying levels of the potentially harmful chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has also been found in Hoosick Falls, NY.

While this situation does not affect the campus directly, we have arranged transportation to two community meetings announced by the governor. Representatives from the Department of Environmental Conservation will be on hand at these meeting to answer questions. To sign up for the shuttle, please contact Austin Bevin in Student Life.

  • Friday, February 26, at 4 pm at the North Bennington Firehouse
  • Monday, February 29, at 6 pm at the Bennington Fire Facility (Bennington Town Meeting)

In addition, in response to the Hoosick Falls water crisis, faculty are developing a pop-up course for later in the term.

We are following the conversation and developments closely and will continue to update the campus community. For more information, please call 802-249-5324 to speak with Vermont state officials.


Bennington College is awarded an NSF grant to expand work on PFOA NSF Awards Bennington College Grant to Expand Study of PFOA

Bennington College Faculty Members David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder have been awarded a $300,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to deepen and expand the College’s response to PFOA contamination in New York and Vermont.

ANR meeting on PFOA Vermont ANR Community Meeting on PFOA

Bennington College hosted a public meeting on PFOA on Thursday, April 27, 2017. At this meeting, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) updated the community about ongoing negotiations with Saint Gobain and reviewed the state’s current analysis of the nature and scope of PFOA contamination in our region. ANR Secretary Julie Moore applauded the “very active” work of Bennington College in responding to this nearby environmental problem.

Bennington College faculty David Bond and Tim Schroeder also provided an update of their ongoing research into PFOA in our environment.

PFOA Donohue video Dr. Joyce Donohue speaks on EPA's new health advisory level for PFOA

On Thursday, October 6, Bennington College welcomed EPA Senior Health Scientist Joyce Donohue. In May 2016, the EPA issued a new guidance level of 70 ppt for PFOA in drinking water. Dr. Donohue gave a public lecture on the background and significance of the new EPA health guidance level for PFOA in drinking water. 

PFOA Event Vermont DEC Community Meeting on PFOA

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation held a meeting of community member and local legislators from Vermont on September 28 in at Bennington College to answer questions from the community, and communicate further information about PFOA as it unfolds. 

Will Buchanan '16 shares his research with DEC commissioner Alyssa Schuren Meeting Held to Update the Community on PFOA Information, Research

On Wednesday, June 29, the Vermont state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) hosted a community meeting at Bennington College to discuss the ongoing PFOA issue in the region. David Bond, associate director of CAPA and principal investigator of the College's research on PFOA, provided an update on the work thus far.

David Bond Talks to VPR About NSF-Sponsored Class on PFOA Bond Speaks About Class On PFOA

David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, spoke with Vermont Public Radio about a course being taught at Bennington College about PFOA. 

National Public Radio Foley Speaks with NPR about PFOA

Faculty member Janet Foley recently spoke with NPR about about PFOA. She, David Bond, and Tim Schroeder are teaching a course beginning next week.

DEC Community Meeting, Governor Shulmin Governor Shumlin Updates Community on PFOA

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin hosted a community meeting at Bennington College with nearby residents of North Bennington.

WAMC radio Faculty Members Speak about PFOA Research

David Bond, Tim Schroeder, and Janet Foley spoke with WAMC about the research into PFOA.

Bennington College to Help Communities in Crisis Bennington College to Help Communities in Crisis

Faculty members David Bond and Tim Schroeder spoke with WNYT about the ongoing research into PFOA.