Michael Hickey had a feeling something wasn’t right about the way his father died from kidney cancer. There was always idle speculation around town about how many people were always getting sick. It was the kind of thing that gets said but then shuffled aside in the hectic day-to-day routine. Often times, people don’t follow up on that kind of talk. But one day, Michael decided he had to do just that.
The link between PFAS and certain cancers
Since his father had worked for 35 years at the local plastics plant, which made Teflon-coated products, he Googled “Teflon and cancer.” Immediately, the results showed him scientific reports of a “probable link” between many types of cancer, including the kind his father had, and a substance called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA is a water and oil repellent. The scientific reporting was done as part of a DuPont settlement.
Michael reached out to Dr. Marcus Martinez, a family physician to a large swath of the town’s residents. He too felt like an unusually high number of his patients were getting diagnosed with cancer. So they set out on a mission to discover what was going on.
First, they asked the town’s part-time mayor to test the water supply. Since the EPA doesn’t require PFAS or PFOA testing, he declined. So Michael had his water tested at home from his kitchen tap, at his own expense. The results? 540 parts per trillion (ppt), well above the EPA’s non-enforceable recommendation of 400 ppt at the time — which has since been lowered to 70 ppt. That led officials from Hoosick Falls to finally test the town’s water, and the findings were consistent with Michael’s home results.
The EPA administration in charge at the time then recommended that Hoosick Falls residents not cook with or drink water from their municipal wells. And Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the owner of the plastics plant in town, has footed the $2 million-plus bill for bottled water and a purification system at the town’s water treatment plant.
Treating a widespread problem now that towns like Hoosick Falls know the threat
Fast forward to today. This week Rep. Brenda Lawrence (MI) with Rep. Ro Khanna (CA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) are introducing new, improved WATER Act bills in the House and Senate that have provisions to help clean up the municipal water supplies affected by substances like PFOA and other PFAS. What may seem like a small addition to some people is a big deal to families in towns like Hoosick Falls, where the long-term effects of “revolutionary” manufactured products are only just now starting to become obvious.
PFAS, unfortunately, are forever
Some PFAS, like PFOA, can be reduced significantly in water supplies through advanced methods. Others are resistant or actually become worse with treatment processes. From our recent report:
According to the EPA’s Drinking Water Treatability database, PFOA and PFOS can be removed by up to 99 percent by processes such as granular activated carbon, membrane separation, ion exchange, and powdered activated carbon. Aside from these technologies, PFAS removal is resistant to many, if not most, water treatment processes, while other technologies may in fact increase their concentrations. Other processes, such as powdered activated carbon, are effective at removing older PFAS, but become less effective with newer PFAS, many of which are replacing the legacy PFAS.
That’s why it’s important for the WATER Act to provide a method to fund treatment for towns that need it (where it will be effective) or to provide support for connecting to alternative water supplies when treatment will not be effective. We also need for PFAS to be stringently regulated in our drinking water.
What else is in the new WATER Act?
In addition to funding projects to address water contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the new WATER Act will:
Provide $35 billion a year to drinking water and wastewater improvements;
Create up to nearly 1 million jobs across the economy and protect American workers;
Prioritize disadvantaged communities with grants and additional support;
Expand technical assistance to small, rural and indigenous communities;
Dedicate and increase grants for indigenous communities;
Help homeowners replace lead service lines;
Provide more than $1 billion a year to update water infrastructure in public schools;
Upgrade household wells and septic systems; and
Promote safe, affordable, publicly controlled water for all.
Support from people like you is what passes a bill like this
This month marks the six-year anniversary since Michael Hickey and his family lost a beloved father and husband. Adding to Hoosick Falls’ tragedies, Dr. Martinez himself has since been diagnosed with an aggressive form of neuroendocrine cancer, and after a period of remission has learned that the cancer has returned and metastasized. To protect others from terrible, heartbreaking outcomes like these, we must act quickly.
Our Executive Director, Wenonah Hauter, extols the many virtues of this new WATER Act:
“The WATER Act is an important piece of the fair and just transition we must have to ensure resilience in the face of mounting climate chaos. It represents a commitment to clean water for all, now and into an uncertain future — and it will create nearly a million jobs in the process.”
Michael Hickey is clear about what this new WATER Act would mean for a town and families like his:
“Hoosick Falls is my home. It’s also a casualty of industrial pollution that’s left its toxic mark on my family and my neighbors’ families,” said Michael Hickey, a resident affected by per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination in the area’s water. “The EPA is failing to do its job to protect us, so Congress must step up by supporting the WATER Act to ensure clean, safe and affordable water across the country. The provisions to provide grants to water systems affected by PFAS contamination will be a lifeline where EPA has miserably failed us.”
We need concerned citizens like Food & Water Watch members and readers to show early support for this new WATER Act of 2019. Help us and people like Michael move this forward by adding your name below and sharing this story.