A former EPA administrator and a former New York state health department official have teamed up with a Vermont college to conduct a health survey of people potentially affected by polluted water in the villages of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, and in Bennington, Vermont.
Judith Enck was the EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration who first warned Hoosick Falls residents in the fall of 2015 not to drink the water in their village because it was contaminated with PFOA, a chemical used in plastics manufacturing for decades in the area.
Enck, who left the EPA during the first days of the Trump administration, is working with scientists and academics at nearby Bennington College, which is conducting the study.
“The goal of this community questionnaire is to determine, are there health trends in these communities among the residents who consumed contaminated water?” Enck said.
A few months after the EPA got involved, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration declared Hoosick Falls a state Superfund site. But Cuomo and his aides were criticized at the time by village residents for not acting quickly enough and for initially downplaying the crisis.
The creators of the survey, which include Dr. Howard Freed, the former director for the Center of Environmental Health at the state health department, did not point fingers at the Cuomo administration. But Dr. David Bond with Bennington College said through talking to residents, they’ve discovered there’s a need for more data on potential health effects from exposure to the chemical.
“Residents have expressed frustration at the toxic uncertainty that PFOA has introduced into their lives,” Bond said. “So many mothers and fathers have expressed fear and outrage that the homes they’ve labored for years to call their own may have been quietly causing harm to their families all along.”
Bond has received two grants from the National Science Foundation to research the effects of PFOA in the region. He said the survey focuses on six specific illnesses, including kidney cancer and thyroid disease, that are associated in scientific studies with exposure to PFOA.
Hoosick Falls resident Charlene Pray attended the announcement with her two grandchildren. All of them drank the contaminated water for several years, and Pray has elevated levels of PFOA in her blood. She said Cuomo’s health department dropped the ball.
“It’s disappointing there weren’t more regulations to protect us,” Pray said. “But now that the incident has happened, then protect us by getting out and finding out exactly what’s going on.”
Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, was testifying nearby in the Capitol complex at an unrelated hearing on Lyme disease. Zucker said he doesn’t know anything about the Bennington College study and so couldn’t comment.
“I haven’t heard what came out of that,” Zucker said.
Three members of the state health department attended the announcement about the study, according to a sign-up sheet.
When informed by reporters about what the study would do, Zucker said the health department already asked residents about health concerns.
“We actually asked a questionnaire with a lot of information,” Zucker said.
A spokesman for the state health department later clarified that a survey that accompanied blood testing of residents in 2016 asked about any health concerns that residents were having. About 3,000 residents were tested, and about 1,700 responded to the survey. Spokesman Gary Holmes said the health department questionnaire did not limit the questions to the six illnesses scientifically associated with PFOA exposure. He said they did that on purpose because they did not want to constrain the answers.
Holmes said there’s no timetable yet for when the data from the 1,700 questionnaires might be released. He said it might not come out until after a second round of blood tests will be offered to village residents sometime later this year. Holmes said the health department has reposted the survey to its website to get more respondents.
The health department has looked at previously published data through the New York State Cancer Registry and concluded in July that there was no significant incidence of cancer within the Hoosick Falls village limits.
Enck said she hopes her survey does not find any illness clusters, but she said if there are, she hopes the results will spur government agencies to take a closer look.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find, but if a trend is identified, it is our great hope that a more comprehensive health study will be done,” Enck said.
Zucker, the health commissioner, agreed.
“This is all about collaboration,” Zucker said.
Just as Bennington College was announcing its survey, the state health department issued a press release saying Zucker has written a letter to the Centers for Disease Control in Washington, asking that a federal survey be conducted.