Understanding PFOA

In 2014, the chemical Perfluorooctanoic acid (C8 or PFOA) was discovered in the drinking water in the Village of Hoosick Falls, NY. As concern over this groundwater contamination grew, other communities began testing their water for PFOA. As of March 2016, PFOA has been discovered in the groundwater of Petersburgh, NY, Merrimack, NH, and in Pownal and North Bennington, VT (the public water system of North Bennington, where Bennington College gets its water, has tested free of PFOA).

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, was awarded a $90,000 National Science Foundation RAPID Response Grant to support a new course and original research on PFOA in our region. The course (Understanding PFOA in Our Water) and research is being conducted in conversation with citizen groups and state officials. Offered in spring 2016 and fall 2016 and open to community participation, the course covers environmental organic chemistry, contaminant hydrogeology, and environmental policy, and is being co-taught by Bond and faculty members Janet Foley and Tim Schroeder. As this issue has unfolded, CAPA has also hosted meetings to facilitate dialogue between concerned residents and Vermont state officials, including two public meetings with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.

In response to the complexity of public health concerns of PFOA, CAPA launched a website that curates and summarizes recent scientific and policy advances around the health concerns of PFOA and documents how other communities have responded to the discovery of PFOA in their drinking water. 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; guests include David Andrews, Senior Scientist with the Environmental Working Group; Laura MacManus-Spencer, chemistry professor at Union College; and Brendan Lyons, senior investigative reporter at the Albany Times Union; 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 20032009, 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

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.


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.

Bond, Foley, and Schroeder Speak with WRGB About PFOA Research Bond, Foley, and Schroeder Speak with WRGB About PFOA Research

Faculty members David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder spoke about the upcoming work on the NSF-funded 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.

Bennington faculty are interviewed by TV reporter NSF Awards Bennington Rapid Response Grant to Study PFOA

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Bennington College nearly $90,000 for a Rapid Response grant to support a new course and conduct original research on the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination recently discovered in Hoosick Falls, NY, and North Bennington, VT.