Understanding PFOA in Our Water
When residents in nearby Hoosick Falls, NY and North Bennington, VT discovered their wells and water contaminated, the College stepped in to study, train, and educate students and citizens
In 2014, the community of Hoosick Falls, New York—5 miles southwest of Bennington—was rocked when they discovered the chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid (C8 or PFOA) in their public drinking water. As concern over this contaminant grew, other nearby communities began testing their drinking water. Over the past two years, PFOA has been detected at alarming levels in the municipal water supply of three towns in New York and Vermont and in more than 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 polyfluorinated compounds—once touted 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.
Enter the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA), which has brought many resources to bear—from human to grant capital. David Bond, the associate director of CAPA, along with faculty members Janet Foley and Tim Schroeder, were awarded two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants: the first a $90,000 RAPID Response Grant to offer a new course, “Understanding PFOA,” and community-driven research into PFOA contamination in the region. A second $300,000 NSF grant was later awarded to deepen and expand the College’s response to PFOA with additional courses and research.
“Support from the NSF will allow Bennington College to do what it does best: engage the big problems of our present directly and put students and faculty to work crafting new insights and new solutions in real-time,” Bond, the principal investigator of the grant, explained.
Alongside Bennington students, Understanding PFOA was opened to local residents, including high school teachers, nurses, local journalists, and community members from Hoosick Falls and Bennington. Offered as a primer on PFOA, the course equipped students and citizens with the tools to better navigate the complicated science of PFOA, to produce data more attuned to local concerns, and to demand better protections for water resources moving forward.
“A key part of the course we are offering and the research we will conduct centers on equipping students with the scientific literacy now required to be effective citizens when a disaster like this strikes,” Schroeder said.
Hoosick Falls Central School District Superintendent Ken Facin was one of the first to sign up for the class. “It was great because the class was informative and allowed me to network. I learned from others who were in the class about their situation, (they learned) what our situation was in Hoosick Falls and how we were going to proceed as an educational institution in teaching our students.”
Doug Reed, a retired environmental educator who lives in Cambridge, New York, said he “jumped on it” when he learned about the class and returned for the second series of classes. “It was a repeat the second semester but it’s such demanding material that I could take it again and again and still learn something.”
While the classes continue to be a major resource for residents still struggling to keep up with the daily deluge of new information, Facin said what he most appreciated was that the College took the role of becoming a “community hub of knowledge and information” not just in Vermont but in neighboring New York. “It was a great prototype for other colleges that should be doing these types of things when there’s an environmental impact or some issue in a community. The expertise of Tim Schroeder and David Bond and Janet Foley was essential to my understanding and my work with my school board and the community.”
Expanding on these early engagements, the most recent NSF grant awarded to Bond, Foley, and Schroeder in June has fostered and supported additional PFOA courses, as well as developed original research on PFOA contamination in partnership with state agencies, local public schools, and regional colleges and universities.
This summer, Bond in coordination with former Regional Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency Judith Enck, environmental engineer Robert Chinery, physician Dr. Howard Freed, and Bennington College’s dean of research and assessment, Dr. Zeke Bernstein designed a community health questionnaire distributed for current and former residents of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, NY and North Bennington, VT impacted by PFOA contamination.
Responding to community concerns, the questionnaire gathered local insight about the incidence of six illnesses that previous scientific studies have linked to PFOA exposure. This information, under review now, provided a preliminary outline of the health of residents in New York and Vermont impacted by PFOA.
“This is a relatively new pollutant and there is a lot of confusing information out there,” Foley said. “This project enables us not only to teach at the frontier of what is known about PFOA but also to conduct original research with students that will produce better information for our community. Whether in testing the mobility of PFOA from contaminated soil into garden vegetables or maple syrup or in measuring the movement of PFOA in our aquifers, we hope to involve students in research questions that really matter to our community.”
In addition to the survey and a study of the health impacts, the team is also using the course to build a foundation for ongoing monitoring and research.
“As more and more attention has turned to PFOA, we’ve begun to realize how extensive the problem of groundwater contamination might be,” Schroeder said. “Part of our project will consist of building a database for our region that can identify hot spots and locate points for long-term monitoring as well as future research projects for students and other scientists.”
The Course: Understanding PFOA in Our Water
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 North Bennington, VT (the public water system of North Bennington, where Bennington College gets its water, have tested free of PFOA). PFOA is a man-made chemical that is persistent, mobile, and bioaccumulative. Classified by the EPA as an “emerging contaminant,” PFOA has been correlated with a range of health problems. This course will investigate the social and physical aspects of this ongoing disaster, from how the regulation of chemicals in the US shaped the disaster to how the specific chemistry of PFOA guides its environmental and biological pathways to how the geological structure of an aquifer influences the distribution and direction of a groundwater contaminant plume. Students will gain formal training in environmental organic chemistry and toxicology, contaminant hydrogeology, and environmental policy. Students will conduct field research on water contamination in North Bennington and Hoosick Falls, collect water samples, interpret laboratory data, and use geospatial analysis techniques and technology to characterize a groundwater plume. Students will also assist faculty members in preparing presentations of early research findings to citizen groups in North Bennington and Hoosick Falls and develop curricular materials that can be used in area public schools.
A Timeline of Response
Early 2014 – Michael Hickey, a private resident of Hoosick Falls, NY became alarmed at an overlap between the rare cancers that afflicted his friends and family and the probable carcinogenic effects of PFOA (manufactured in Hoosick Falls, NY for many decades). Hickey requests that the Village Board test the drinking water. The Board declines. Hickey sends the water to a lab. After independent lab results indicate a high level of PFOA in the Village drinking water, Hickey makes a second request that the Board test the drinking water for PFOA. —As reported by the Albany Times Union
November 2014 – The Village Board tests the public drinking water, with lab results detecting high levels of PFOA (540 parts per trillion), concentrations above the EPA’s health guidance level of 400 parts per trillion (ppt). Calling the test results “encouraging,” the Village Board erroneously informed the 4,500 residents connected to the public water supply that PFOA concentrations were “within and under the EPA guidelines.” —As reported by the Albany Times Union, and the Village of Hoosick Falls archive
December 2015 – An Albany Times Union investigative report finds that PFOA was regularly dumped behind the plant in the field that is home to the Village’s water supply well. Frustrated citizens request clarification from the EPA. The EPA instructs residents of Hoosick Falls, NY to stop drinking and cooking with tap water. David Bond, Associate Director of CAPA at Bennington College, along with a group of concerned students begin attending community meetings in Hoosick Falls, NY.
February 2016 – Residents of North Bennington, VT contact local legislators expressing concerns about the former Chemfab property. Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) samples five private wells near the Chemfab facility and the North Bennington municipal water supply. Elevated levels of PFOA are detected.
March 2016 – PFOA is also discovered in the groundwater of Petersburgh, NY; Merrimack and Bedford, NH; as well as Pownal, VT. David Bond teams with Bennington College faculty members Janet Foley (chemist) and Tim Schroeder (geologist). The team is awarded a $90,000 RAPID Response Grant from the National Science Foundation to support a new class on PFOA and community-driven research. At a White House Water Summit, their work is recognized as a leading example of how universities can respond to water contamination.
April 2016 – Understanding PFOA, a class co-taught by Bond, Foley, and Schroeder, offers a primer on PFOA, introducing students to the chemical properties, environmental pathways, and PFOA policy concerns. It begins with 20 Bennington students and eight local residents, including the high school superintendent, public school teachers, nurses, and local journalists.
Spring 2016 – Bond, Foley, and Schroeder bring students into impacted communities in Vermont and New York to conduct independent research into PFOA contamination in conversation with community concerns and questions. The group organizes a lecture series on PFOA, bringing leading PFOA scientists and policymakers to Bennington. The project is covered by national media outlets.
Summer 2016 – A Bennington student begins work with the Vermont State Agency, helping to map the geology of the region and studying how PFOA moves through groundwater.
Fall 2016 – Bond, Foley, and Schroeder repeat the Understanding PFOA class with 18 Bennington students and five local residents. They continue the lecture series on PFOA and provide regular updates on their research at community meetings in Hoosick Falls, NY and Bennington, VT.
Field Work Term 2017 – Four students, sponsored by Bennington College, pursue advanced work on PFOA, collaborating with Vermont state agencies to map groundwater, and support the work of a nationally acclaimed journalist reporting on the issue.
Spring 2017 – Schroeder reviews all of the state data on PFOA in Vermont and provides an early analysis of trends in the levels of PFOA in private wells.
May 2017 – Bond organizes a student water conference with Hoosick Falls Central School District Superintendent Ken Facin, bringing more than 100 AP science students from area high schools to Bennington College. The College also hosts attorney Rob Bilott, whose groundbreaking work on PFOA has been instrumental in exposing corporate malfeasance around the manufacture of PFOA and advancing new scientific understandings of the health risks of PFOA.
June 2017 – Bond, Foley, and Schroeder are awarded a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue their work on Understanding PFOA for three additional years.
October 2017 – Bond and Foley are featured in Vermont PBS special, “Saving Our Water.”
PFOA was a likely suspect as it had been used in plastics manufacturing in Hoosick Falls since the 1950s, most notably and most recently at the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant (where PFOA was on site in Hoosick Falls, NY until about 2002).
National Science Foundation RAPID Response Grants enable universities and colleges to respond quickly to unfolding events to produce much-needed data on current events.