State officials in Vermont and New York have been testing water and people in areas where water wells are contaminated by the suspected carcinogen PFOA — and now professors and college students are joining the response team.
In Vermont, Bennington College has been awarded a grant of nearly $90,000 to teach a class and conduct research on the chemical, which was found in private wells in Bennington and Hoosick Falls, New York.
The six-week course began last week, and will be taught again this fall.
The National Science Foundation issues what are known as Rapid Response grants to colleges and universities working to address immediate environmental crises.
VPR spoke with David Bond, a professor and the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. He's one of the three professors teaching the course on PFOA, along with chemistry professor Janet Foley and geology professor Tim Schroeder.
“A number of [rapid response] grants supported really important work — during the BP oil spill, to figure out how the oil was dissolving into the ocean and spreading at a microbial level,” says Bond, adding that the recent discovery of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, one of the first water tests was funded by a Rapid Response grant.
“[The grants have] become a very useful mechanism to produce independent data at a time when a lot of citizens are really, really anxious," Bond says. "And at times when there's a lot of contradictory information out there, and the universities and colleges have become a really useful resource to produce independent data.”
Understanding how PFOA travels
Bond says most of the grant money will go towards water sampling and laboratory analysis for PFOA.
The state is also doing water testing, but Bond says the class will be able to test across states lines, and follow the contaminant where the science leads.
“We can produce a database that doesn't stop at the state border,” he says. “The other thing we can do is we can ask slightly different questions of the problem. So, the state rightfully is very focused on figuring out where it is and beginning to address how they can sort of safeguard citizens from it.”
The class, Bond says, will be testing clusters of houses every two weeks over several months, including a house with high levels of PFOA, one with lower levels and one with no PFOA detected.
“They're in very close proximity to each other, so we can begin to see, are those initial reading stable? Are they changing quite frequently over time?" he says.
Bond says this work is an effort to determine why the readings are so different on houses that are so close to one another. The class won’t be studying health impacts of PFOA because of limitations in expertise and time, but they will be looking at existing health data.
Seeking social justice
“We haven't yet gone to the archives of Chemfab, and that will probably happen as we move forward and those are opened to new kinds of inspection," says Bond, adding that some of the early studies of the plant have been informative.
"DuPont, we know, had lots of concerns about PFOA as early as, I think, the '60s and '70s when they started doing tests and beginning to sort of document it in workers' bloods and then in the drinking water surrounding the plant," Bond says. "A lot of what we know that comes out of those initial cohort studies.”
Bond says the college is still trying to figure out what its role should be in response to a nearby environmental problem like this.
“One of things we're trying to design this class for is to teach students how to be good citizens when something like this happens. How to ask the right kinds of questions, how to produce or interpret data, and how to demand better protections for water resources.”
The class held its first meeting last week, and sent its first batch of samples to be tested off to the lab.
Bond says the samples were from natural springs in the area — and from maple syrup. The class took syrup from a tree that was tapped near Chemfab.
Outdated federal laws governing chemicals
Both the House and the Senate have passed their own versions of updates to the Toxic Substance Control Act, an outdated law that effectively restricts the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to actively regulate chemicals. The two chambers now have to reconcile their differences and create one bill to move forward.
But some of the changes being considered could have an effect on Vermont’s guidelines for PFOA.
“There's an open question and I can't get a straight answer on: the question of federal preemption,” says Bond. “The Toxic Substance Control Act was passed in 1976. The new version has a thing called federal preemption where if the EPA decides to bring the chemical under investigation or under review, states are prevented from putting out guidelines or rules on it.”
The question in Vermont, Bond says, is whether Vermont’s guidelines on PFOA outlining its safe levels in water will be considered “rules” and therefore not allowed under the new Act.
“Does it mean that states — in this new law, that if the EPA has a chemical under review — states are not allowed to offer any kind of guidance for it?” Bond asks.
Bond says PFOA has been under review at the EPA since the late 1990s. He says if the modernization of the Toxic Substance Control Act passes, he can’t determine if Vermont would have been able to issue its 20 parts per trillion guidance for PFOA.
“It's a question that I can't get a straight answer from anyone," he says. "I’ve reached out to the Senate, the congressional delegation from Vermont and others. And it's just something I want to keep interjecting into the conversation.”