RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Concerns about water safety aren't just in Flint, Mich. Water worries are hitting the Northeast, where communities in three states have found elevated levels of a chemical used in everyday things like Teflon and water-resistant clothing. It's a suspected carcinogen called PFOA. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It's been more than two years since Michael Hickey has drunk his tap water. And for the past four months, he and about 4,000 of his neighbors in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. have had another routine.
MICHAEL HICKEY: Are you going to grab another?
WANG: Picking up free rations of bottled water from the supermarket.
How long does this last?
HICKEY: The water? We're supposed to be keeping the water here to pick up until October, until the permanent filtration system's put in.
WANG: For Hickey, this all began after his father died from kidney cancer more than three years ago.
HICKEY: I'm not a big environmentalist. I'm just an everyday guy that came across a chemical to follow through on for my father and my son.
WANG: His father worked with PFOA, also known as C8, at a plastics factory near the village's wells. So Hickey wondered, was there something in the water?
HICKEY: You know, we're in a Teflon manufacturing town. What's in Teflon? PFOA.
WANG: Hickey paid to have water samples tested for PFOA, and results showed levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's recommendation, 400 parts per trillion. Follow-up tests found levels 45 times higher than that near the factory. Then last November, the EPA told the town to stop drinking its water.
KATHLEEN REECE: It didn't have to be this way. This is a beautiful little town. It's heartbreaking.
WANG: That's Kathleen Reece. She's lived in Hoosick Falls for more than a decade, and she's continued taking shorter showers even as filtration brought PFOA down to non-detectable levels. Yesterday, she and her neighbors got an update from state officials. They declared the tap water safe to drink again. Other places are still dealing with PFOA, including other parts of upstate New York, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Soil testers here in North Bennington recently sampled dirt from a home that has a private well with elevated PFOA levels according to the state standards. Richard Spiese is overseeing this operation for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
RICHARD SPIESE: Once we started getting drinking water results, people were like, well, what about our gardens? What about the soils around our homes?
WANG: Just some of the many questions that government officials are scrambling to answer, and they're playing catch-up. PFOA has been around for almost 70 years. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected small amounts of PFOA in the blood of more than 98 percent of Americans. That's because for decades, it was used to make things like nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpets and even microwave popcorn bags.
PHILIPPE GRANDJEAN: It stays in the body for many, many years, and it turns out to interact with processes in our body.
WANG: Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health studies PFOA. He's found it can interfere with children's immune systems and make them less responsive to vaccines. Other studies have shown a probable link between the chemical and some types of cancer. Grandjean's concerned that its presence may be more widespread than initially thought now that the Pentagon is checking more than 600 military sites where water may be contaminated with PFOA.
GRANDJEAN: This not just a local problem. This is a problem which I am sure occurs in every single state.
WANG: Companies like DuPont and 3M have been sued for contaminating water with PFOA in places like West Virginia, Ohio and Alabama. The EPA has pushed companies to clean up contaminated sites, and many manufacturers in the U.S. have stopped using the chemical. Still, there's a lot researchers don't understand about PFOA.
JANET FOLEY: We don't know how it moves.
WANG: Janet Foley teaches chemistry at Bennington College. She's studying how the chemical interacts with the environment.
FOLEY: We also don't know what concentrations really are going to incur a health risk.
WANG: And she says PFOA is not unique. In fact, there are a lot of other industrial chemicals we don't know much about.
FOLEY: We're so interested in making lots of new stuff. In order to do that, it needs many, many different kinds of chemicals. A lot of times, we don't know the questions to ask.
WANG: The question now is exactly likely how much PFOA is safe to drink? The EPA has been trying to answer that for years. Currently, there are no enforceable regulations from the federal government. The EPA says to set those standards it needs more research on how PFOA impacts humans, but it is working on new recommendations. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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