HOOSICK FALLS — It did not take long for Michael Hickey to find a connection between his father’s cancer and a toxic chemical in this riverside village.
“All I typed in was Teflon and cancer, because that’s what was in the factory that was in Hoosick Falls where my father worked,” said Hickey, an insurance underwriter and lifelong resident here.
“It took about five minutes,” he said.
It took far longer for government officials to take notice, let alone take action, which came partially in response to Hickey’s efforts to bring attention to the village’s polluted water. On Tuesday, a state Senate committee held a daylong hearing here, after months in which residents have repeatedly expressed frustration with both state and federal reaction to the contamination.
Hickey, who was one of the first speakers on Tuesday, talked in halting and emotional terms about the death of his father from kidney cancer, which led him to investigate, in a Google search, a possible link between Teflon and the diseases that seemed to plague his town and his family.
In recent months, Hoosick Falls, about 30 miles northeast of Albany, has become the epicenter of a sprawling public health crisis after researchers discovered that the public water supply was tainted with high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Since then, several nearby towns in New York and across the border in Vermont have also reported unsafe levels of PFOA, which was used in a variety of commercial and industrial products and in the production of Teflon.
The chemical has been deemed hazardous by the state and has been linked in some studies to an increased risk for cancer, thyroid disease and other serious ailments. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency established a lifetime standard for PFOA exposure in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion, far below what was found in several samples in Hoosick Falls’ water.
More than 2,000 residents of Hoosick Falls or areas nearby have had their blood tested, with a median result that is nearly 15 times the national median for those 12 or older. Hundreds were reported to be above the new EPA long-term level, including some children.
Chilling discoveries continue: On Monday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced that it had declared municipal landfills in three towns and villages — Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh and Berlin — to be potential state Superfund sites after high levels of the chemical were discovered. In the case of the Hoosick Falls site, the results were particularly alarming, with samples showing 21,000 parts per trillion.
The state’s Health Department did not warn against drinking the water here until after a federal warning was made public in December. And on Tuesday, state Sen. Kemp Hannon, R-Nassau County, who is the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, criticized a December fact sheet from the Health Department — which did not warn against drinking the water, but did note possible health problems associated with PFOA — as “the most inconsistent letter I’ve ever seen.”
“This is an example of what has led to the folks in this community being so disturbed,” Hannon said.
In response, New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, noted that such contamination was “an emerging issue, and national, issue.”
Indeed, even as the hearing continued, the state stepped up its contention that the EPA was negligent in its handling of PFOA contamination, while the EPA suggested that the state was being disingenuous about its performance during the crisis, the worst environmental scare of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure.
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