Chemfab Factory Contaminates Water in Bennington


By Hye-Jin Kim

Flint, Mich. Hoosick Falls, N. Y. North Bennington, Vt.

“We are facing a water contamination crisis across our country. North Bennington is the latest in a long line of communities who can no longer trust the most basic necessity of life,” said Erin Brokovich on her website, a consumer advocate involved in the Hoosick Falls investigation.

Brokovich is most famous for leading a $333 million settlement lawsuit in 1996 against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for contaminating drinking water in Hinkley, Calif.

On Feb. 25, Governor Peter Shumlin (D) released a statement that test results from private wells in North Bennington revealed harmful levels of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). All the sources affected were located within a mile from an abandoned Chemfab factory owned by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the same company responsible for the recent PFOA contamination in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. where high levels of the chemical were found in the public water supply.

PFOA is a byproduct of producing Teflon, a non-stick coating used to treat pots and pans throughout the late 20th century. In the early 2000s, research linked PFOA exposure to increased rates of testicular and kidney cancer, high cholesterol and other endocrine-related disorders in humans. In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated companies to phase-out PFOA production by 2015.

However, PFOA is a very stable chemical that does not degrade easily. It stubbornly persists, both in the enviroment and in the body.
“When people are exposed to PFOA,

the chemical stays in the body. These chemicals do not dissolve in fat like other persistent pollutants,” according to the Department of Health. “Instead, they accumulate in the blood. The time it takes for half the PFOA to leave your body is two to four years.” This is also assuming one is not exposed to additional PFOA from Teflon-coated pans.

Trace levels of PFOA are predicted to be present in 95 percent of the human population from pole to pole; even polar bears have tested positive. This is why PFOA levels are still a problem in the area, despite the factory being abandoned since 2002 following only two years in operation.

While the Vermont Department of Health offers kits for private well owners to test their water for inorganic chemicals like lead and arsenic, it does not offer a kit for PFOA detection. According to the Department of Health website, “Laboratories in Vermont are not equipped to test for PFOA. The Department of Environmental Conservation will collect water samples to send to an out-of-state lab for this specialized testing.”

As of Feb. 25, Vermont state officials have been going door-to-door, collecting samples from private wells within a one and a half mile radius of the Chemfab factory to test for PFOA. The Vermont Health Department has a stricter drinking water level for PFOA at 20 parts-per-trillion (ppt) than the national standard of 400 ppt set by the E.P.A. While the calculations are based “on the same science,” Vermont accounts for exposure to children early in life while the E.P.A. based their standard on exposure to adults. The wastewater treatment plant tested at 618 ppt and the landscaping business 168 ppt. The residential wells ranged from 40 to 2,880 ppt.

According to Dr. Harry Chen, Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, PFOA is most dangerous when ingested; external exposure through water-resistant clothing or washing pots is negligible since PFOA cannot absorb into the skin.

On March 4, tap water from another Saint-Gobain factory, this time in Merrimack, N.H., was tested for PFOA. It tested at 0.3 micrograms per liter. While the E.P.A. does not enforce drinking water standards for PFOA, it has established a “provisional health advisory” for any level higher than 0.4 micrograms per liter.

“This is concerning news,” said Governor Shumlin in a statement. “We are fortunate that the public drinking water systems are not impacted. We will continue to be vigilant about testing private wells in the North Bennington area, getting bottled water to those who need it and addressing any health concerns or impacts going forward. No one should have to worry about the safety of the water they drink. We will be there for those impacted until the situation is resolved.”

The Saint-Gobain Corporation has been providing bottled water to residents affected by possible PFOA contamination in North Bennington and Hoosick Falls. A federal class-action lawsuit against Saint-Gobain on behalf of Hoosick Falls has been underway since September 2015. The lawsuit, spearheaded by Brokovich and the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, will now include North Bennington in its investigation as well.

In a recent speech to residents of Flint, Mich., Senator Bernie Sanders urged his own state officials to “aggressively investigate the well water situation in North Bennington, keep families informed and ensure Vermonters have access to clean and safe water.”

“The state must hold the polluters responsible for their actions,” he said.