While Bennington Residents Learn How To Live With PFOA, Doctors Play Catch Up

Aug 1, 2016

People in Bennington County have been learning how to live with PFOA in their water. Now they're learning how to live knowing it's in their bodies.

State officials think emissions from the former Chemfab factory in North Bennington contaminated hundreds of private wells in southwestern Vermont with the suspected cancer-causing chemical.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has been testing private wells around Bennington, and almost 250 are contaminated with the suspected carcinogen.

And a few months ago, the health department held blood clinics to test the levels of PFOA in the people who've been drinking the contaminated water. Just last week, those people got their results back.

The average Bennington resident who's been drinking the contaminated water has between 10 and 20 micrograms per liter of PFOA in their blood. (The average American has about 2 micrograms per liter.)

Coleen Healy, whose well is the most contaminated, has 480 micrograms.

"I got a phone call on Friday and I said, 'OK, now what?' And they really don't know now what," she says. "She said, 'It doesn't mean you're going to get sick,' and I said, 'I'm already showing symptoms of being sick.'"

Just before the PFOA crisis hit, Healy had a routine physical. Her doctor said her thyroid was showing signs of distress and her cholesterol was high – both signs of PFOA poisoning.

So she's pretty freaked out.

"I'm very scared for my kids ... They were busy out there, playing in the sprinkler. Eating the food from our garden that we watered." - Coleen Healy

"I'm very scared for my kids," she says. "Just because they were Earth kids. They were busy out there, playing in the sprinkler. Eating the food from our garden that we watered and nurtured the seedlings in the water from our house. You know, that's my biggest worry. They're just kids."

Healy has two children. Her daughter also tested hundreds of times higher than average, and her son will do a blood test in November when he comes home from college.

PFOA has been used for decades; scientists thought it was safe, and so there haven't been a lot of tests done on how it affects the human body.

But now researchers are finding out that it's likely tied to a wide range of serious diseases.

So while doctors can tell Healy how much PFOA is in her blood, they can't really tell her very much more.

"It's scary," she says. "It's scary to call six internists in town and none of them know much about PFOAs ... It's like, no, we need to have somebody who knows about it."

The Department of Health is trying to get local doctors up to speed as hundreds of Vermonters come to terms with the fact that this dangerous chemical is in their body.

"There's probably a very steep learning curve in terms of health care providers knowing a lot about PFOA, because it is an emerging contaminant." - Sarah Vose, Vermont Department of Health

But Sarah Vose, who works for the Vermont Department of Health, says everyone is still learning about how the body reacts to this dangerous chemical.

"There's probably a very steep learning curve in terms of health care providers knowing a lot about PFOA, because it is an emerging contaminant," Vose says. "It's not a chemical that most people in Vermont knew a lot about before this contamination was discovered back in February."

Over time, if people stop drinking the contaminated water, Vose says the amount of PFOA will slowly go down.

And she says say people with high levels of the chemical in their blood should probably keep a close eye on the different health outcomes that are most strongly correlated with PFOA.

But there's no quick fix. There's no way of telling if the chemical will cause cancer or affect the immune system (though a federal panel recently upgraded its warning about the affects of the chemical), and there's no reassuring advice doctors can give to parents who are worried about their kids.

"I think people's reactions are what we anticipated," Vose says. "It can be very concerning to get these results and to not have a clear understanding of what this means for an individual's health."

And so people such as Jim Sullivan have to wait and see what happens.

"Who is going to ultimately pay for long-term medical monitoring for ourselves, and for everybody that's affected?" - Jim Sullivan

Sullivan lives right above the former Chemfab plant. His water's contaminated and his blood test showed elevated levels of PFOA.

Sullivan is trying to be pragmatic. He says he'll work with his doctor, and monitor the suspected health effects that are linked to PFOA.

But he's got some long-term questions.

"Of course one of the things that we're interested in is, who is going to ultimately pay for long-term medical monitoring for ourselves, and for everybody that's affected?" says Sullivan. "Because, this stuff, as you know, doesn't leave the system any time soon. And we have to stay on top of it, maybe the rest of our lives. So, it's a significant issue."

The state is negotiating with Saint-Gobain, the company that owned the North Bennington Factory, to have them cover costs associated with the contamination.

Sullivan is also involved with a class-action lawsuit against the company.