When perfluorinated chemicals were first found in southwestern Vermont, very few people in the state had even heard of the dangerous compound. But now scientists here, and across the country, are finding more and more of it in the environment.
It has been about two and a half years since PFOA was first detected in drinking water in Bennington. And now just this week, the Department of Environmental Conservation said they recently discovered PFAS compounds at unsafe levels in two Vermont schools.
One of those schools is Grafton Elementary School. It may be about the last place you’d expect to find contaminated water, as Grafton is one of the most picturesque villages in Vermont, and there’s no chemical industry anywhere nearby.
So ever since superintendent Chris Pratt learned that the school’s well was polluted, he’s been trying to figure it out.
“Where does a chemical like this ... come from when you don’t have the big, you know, factories now or — from my understanding — at any point?” Pratt said.
Earlier this month, state officials found out that PFAS chemicals were used in floor cleaners and wax, and they tested 10 schools that had wells to see if they’d find any residue.
And now Grafton, and the Warren Elementary School, are the two latest confirmed sites in Vermont’s ongoing investigation into water contamination.
More from VPR — 2 Vermont Schools Show Levels Of PFAS Above State Safety Standard [July 30]
Vermont environmental officials have been widening the scope of their investigation ever since the chemical PFOA was discovered in about 300 wells in Bennington in early 2016.
This spring, officials visited residents in Clarendon who lived downstream from the Rutland Regional Airport. For a very long time the airport has been using a firefighting foam that has PFOS in it, another chemical related to PFOA.
And trying to protect Vermonters from the impact of products like the firefighting foam has taken a combination of hard science and persistence.
Using geological maps that show underground aquifers, state officials tried to guess where the water might flow down from the airport. Then they drew some circles on the map and tried to knock on every door to test the water.
Krista Reed was holding her two-month-old baby when DEC site manager Michael Nahmias knocked on her door to test the water.
“We’re kind of hoping that this down here, I mean it’s pretty far from the airport, so we’re kind of thinking this is where, like, we’re going to not really find it anymore,” Nahmias told Reed.
“I always grew up on well water and stuff," Reed said, "so I mean we were drinking it right along up until, you know ... and I was, like, pregnant for him, because he’s only two months old — and I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' Now we’re freaked out."
The state tested 54 wells near Rutland Regional Airport. Five had PFAS chemicals above the safe drinking water standard, including an industrial park that serves eight business.
DEC Waste Management Division Director Chuck Schwer has been on the front lines of the state’s race to protect Vermonters from PFAS contamination.
Emerging health studies link the chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, low birth weights, high cholesterol and immune system deficiencies.
Schwer says perfluorinated chemicals have been used for decades. They were legally burned and dumped and used in all sorts of products.
And so when his staff started looking for other sites outside of Bennington, there was no roadmap to follow.
“We really had to start from almost ground zero,” said Schwer. “And we weren’t aware of all the locations where these chemicals [were used] and we’re still not aware. There are still other industries and facilities that we will likely be looking at in the future as we learn more.”
The national concern about the dangers of perfluorinated chemicals started near the factories where they were made. But then as states like Vermont began testing smaller facilities that used products that contain the PFAS, it was showing up in water test after water test.
“So that’s when I think the nation started to be alerted, OK this is not just an isolated problem in a few states — this is really a national problem,” Schwer said. “And we’re there now. It’s a national problem.”
The Environmental Working Group is national advocacy organization that’s been tracking the spread of known PFAS contamination across the country.
“The more we look for these chemicals, the more we find,” said Environmental Working Group scientist Alexis Temkin. “So I think a lot of the interest in contamination came from residents, who were concerned, and often either residents or state officials had water samples detected, and once they realized they found some of this contamination, it became a bigger problem and more and more people started looking.”
A recently issued Vermont report said there are still a number of businesses that might have used PFAS compounds including coated paper products, car washes, paint manufacturers and plastic industries.
The DEC said it's gathering information before moving ahead with additional testing.