Studies show more health harms from PFOA

Aug 12, 2016

The New York State Senate is expected to soon announce a date for a hearing on how the Cuomo administration handled drinking water contamination in Hoosick Falls. It comes as new studies out this week show more harmful effects from exposure to the chemical PFOA, on mothers and their children.

The four studies — some done by Harvard researchers and published in leading journals — look at a class of human-made substances known as highly fluorinated chemicals. They include perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, used in the manufacture of nonstick coatings on pots and pans as well as fabric protectors. PFOA was found in water in Hoosick Falls and other towns in eastern New York.

“These chemicals have some of the strongest bonds in the periodic table, and they basically never break down, so they stay around for millions of years,” said Arlene Blum with the University of California, Berkeley-based Green Science Policy Institute.

Blum said several types of cancer, high cholesterol and obesity are all associated with exposure to the substances.

Two papers by Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean look at the effects of PFOA on the immune systems of children. He found that very young children exposed to the chemical have a reduced immune response to vaccinations. He also found that as the children grew older, they had other problems as well, including more colds and stomach upsets.

The other study found that women with high levels of PFOA in their blood could not breastfeed as long as women without high levels, indicating some kind of hormonal disturbance.

The problems experienced in Hoosick Falls — where many residents have been found to have high levels of PFOA in their blood, likely from nearby manufacturing plants — appear to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Similar highly fluorinated chemicals are contained in flame retardants at airports and on military bases. They are used in trainings, and another study found the runoff can end up in the water supply.

Blum said one immediate way to curb the chemicals is to use some other substance for trainings and save the actual chemicals for when there’s a real need.

“If there’s a fire, perhaps we really need these chemicals,” she said. “They should not be used for practices.”

A fourth study looked at EPA tests of two-thirds of the drinking water systems in the United States and found the drinking water of 6 million people has levels of highly fluorinated chemicals that are above the current EPA limits.

Blum said if the EPA lowers its limits of acceptable levels of PFOA and related chemicals, as many scientists have urged, then as many as 16.5 million people could be drinking potentially contaminated water.

She said there is a solution, though: Find other water sources that have not yet been contaminated by chemicals.