Hoosick Falls, Rensselaer County, New York. A sign, covered with ancient barb wire, lost in time, proclaims, “Village of Hoosick Falls, Home of New York State’s Best-Tasting Water 1987.”
It’s a relic of a more innocent era in the life of a village that fell through the cracks of society’s toxic safety net.
Starting in 1955, Hoosick Falls was home to eleven manufacturing plants providing more than 500 good-paying, blue-collar jobs that were the “economic lifeblood” of the community. The men and women who worked at the plants produced fabrics, foils, yarn, and tapes. But what made these products unique was that they were both stain- and water-resistant.
In the late 1990s and and early 2000s, a flood of Middle Eastern petro-dollars poured into the community to the tune of some $90-million in contracts to produce the flame- and water-resistant white tents for pilgrims that you see in travel pictures of Mina, Saudi Arabia, during the Hajj. Work like that provided jobs for teenagers like Michael Hickey and his father John who drove a school bus by day and, for 32 years, worked the night shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m at the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant on McCaffrey Street.
Around town people complained of foul-smelling tap water and spoke of seeing river rocks covered with orange goop.
The plants shared something in common: use of perfluorooctanoic acid (known interchangeably as PFOA or C8 for its backbone of eight carbon atoms attached to fluorine), a chemical first synthesized in 1936 and an early member of a family of some six-thousand molecular cousins known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). Teflon was an early brand name.
THE NON-STICK MAN
Dr. Roy J. Plunkett began working for DuPont Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey, in 1936. The research chemist accidentally discovered Teflon in 1938 when conducting a failed experiment involving refrigerator coolant. The waxy substance proved to be heat resistant, non-stick, and slippery.
After 10 years of research, DuPont introduced Teflon in 1949 and began using ammonium perfluorooctanoate, also called C8, to make it and other similar chemicals at its Washington Works plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia.
By 1954, DuPont employees expressed concerns about the toxicity of C8.
In 1956, 3M began selling Scotchgard Protector, a tape made with a fluorochemical that helped it repel stains. By the 1960s, PFAS were being used in everything from Hush Puppies to cookware, creating the need for more plants that began springing up throughout the country but especially in an area of the Northeast that included Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, New York, and Bennington, Vermont. With a Mad Men-inspired thirst for miracle brands such as Gore-Tex, Stainmaster, Scotchgard, and SilverStone, our consumption-oriented society fueled an economic golden age for small towns like Hoosick Falls.
John Hickey died for our sins. To be brutal about it, I would say he was chemically raped.
“My dad didn’t smoke or drink,” Michael recalls. “He gave all that up by the time he was twenty-one.”
John Hickey was in the first year of retirement in 2010 when his doctor diagnosed him with kidney cancer. He was in the same hospital, recovering from having lost his kidney, on the day his grandson was born. Cancer attacked John’s second kidney in 2012. He died in 2013.
Heartbroken and feeling that his father had been robbed of decades of life—after all, both grandparents had lived into their late eighties—Michael went on Google and researched “Teflon,” discovering a report that would open his eyes to the data that DuPont had kept under wraps: a court-appointed panel overseeing the medical portion of the unfolding tragedy in Parkersburg confirmed kidney cancer was prevalent among exposed persons. One of the chemicals identified was Teflon, made with PFOA.
This gave him his new mission in life. Staying up late into the night, month after month, Michael read up on PFOA, troubled and alarmed by the tragic picture he uncovered.
He went to the mayor, then county, and state officials to discuss getting the town’s water tested. No one with whom he met was remotely responsive. The mayor was concerned about reviving the town’s economy as the plants that had once made the town wealthy had begun to leave one by one. Michael’s news wouldn’t be good for the town’s economy.
Another public official reminded Michael that no federal or state law required towns as small as Hoosick Falls to test their water.
But Dr. Marcus Martinez, a local family physician, confirmed for Michael that patients in his own practice were experiencing the same cancers and sicknesses as Parkersburg where Teflon was produced. (Five years later, sadly, cancer has attacked Dr. Martinez and spread to his lungs and brain.)
Michael hired the same company testing the water in Parkersburg to analyze samples at his home, his mother’s residence, a local McDonald’s, and what he described as a “Dollar” store. The lab discovered high levels of PFOA: 540 parts per trillion (ppt) at his house and 460 ppt at his mother’s home. There is no known safe level for chronic exposure to PFOA, according to experts.
Becoming a whitle blower in his own right, the news broke in December 2015 in the Times-Union. Hoosick Falls has since become the nation’s poster child for PFAS contamination as cancer continues to inflict its pain upon the townspeople.
Besides kidney cancer, the men of Hoosick Falls are also developing testicular cancer just as the Parkersburg data found, Michael says. He quickly reeled off three cases of testicular cancer he recently heard about.
“One involved 28 rounds of chemotherapy. Another person I spoke to was forty-seven. His testicle was removed yesterday.”
But, in fact, cancer is just the first sign of something else that is much less obvious that is happening to the men and boys of Hoosick Falls. The sexual nature of the males and their offspring is being genetically altered.
TEFLON-COATED GENE RECEPTORS
In cookware, PFOA provides a protective non-stick coating. In men PFOA’s slippery molecules seem to “coat” portions of the body’s cells.
PFOA, in particular, prevents testosterone from binding to androgen receptors (AR), which are docking stations found on cell surfaces that transmit hormonal and environmental signals to the genes. ARs are found abundantly on fetal, infant, and teen boys’ and men’s reproductive organs that require testosterone at critical points in development in order to function healthily.
FEMINIZING AN EXPOSED ITALIAN POPULATION
Pediatricians in Italy have begun finding unnerving changes to the actual physical male body as a result of PFAS exposure.
To investigate the relationship between PFAS exposure and male reproductive health, a study published in 2019 was performed by researchers from the Department of Medicine, Operative Unit of Andrology and Medicine of Human Reproduction at the University of Padua, Italy.
The study included 212 male youth from the Veneto region of Italy, one of four areas worldwide heavily polluted with PFAS, and a control group of 171 nonexposed young men.
The study found increased levels of PFAS in plasma lowered circulating testosterone levels, which led to a reduction of semen quality, testicular volume, penile length, and anogenital distance (AGD).
Young men’s risk for testicular cancer is highly increased as is the likelihood of being born with hypospadia (misplaced penis opening) and cryptorchidism (undescended testicle) when any or all of these markers are altered. AGD is a powerful indicator of feminization and testosterone deficiency.
The anogential distance from the midpoint of the anus to the genitalia (the underside of the scrotum or vagina) is a medically significant marker of endocrine-disruptor exposure. The perineum is on average about twice as long in males as females. Men’s have more variance, but there is a normal range, and AGD is now used to predict prospects of childhood and adult reproductive disorders and disease.
Smaller-than-average AGD is linked to smaller penis size, undescended testes, lowered sperm counts, and impaired fertility in males. Boys born with a shorter than normal AGD have seven times the chance of being sub-fertile as those with a longer one. Adult males have a higher risk risk of testicular cancer. Babies with high total exposure to certain endocrine disruptors were ninety times more likely to have a short AGD. Experimental studies have found adverse reproductive effects for PFAS can occur with exposures during pregnancy at levels as low as 1 ppt.
The effects are clearly showing in the statistics. A 2015 study from the World Journal of Urology found that testicular cancer incidence in males over fifteen in the United States rose from 5.7 per 100,000 in 1992 to 6.8 per 100,000 by 2009. The annual percentage increase was 1.1%. The science confirms what doctors say: the pervasive nature of PFAS is now an attack on male sexuality.
WRITING BETTER LAWS
By attending the 2019 State of the Union address with Representative Antonio Delgado and testifying four times in Washington, Michael Hickey has continued to shine light on the PFAS contamination that seems likely to have been the cause of his father’s death. Although no PFAS-specific bills made it out of the 2019 Congress, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed this summer, contains limited provisions requiring a phase-out of PFAS use in military firefighting foam and food packaging and that all air and water discharges of PFOA be made public by way of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.
The NDAA also directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to decide whether to add several additional specific PFAS to the nation’s Toxic Release Inventory within two years. Finally, the legislation requires that, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, larger public water utilities would need to begin testing their water supplies. However, given the President Donald J. Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, implementation seems years away.
Eighteen states are considering sixty-three current PFAS policies, according to Safer States. Florida’s SB 998 requires entities who discharge PFAS to report them to the Department of Environmental Protection. In Kentucky, SB 104 prohibits the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS for training purposes. Iowa’s HF 775 prohibits the sale of upholstered furniture containing toxic flame retardants as well as manufacture and sale of class B firefighting foam, food packaging, and firefighter protective equipment containing PFAS chemicals.
RECLAIMING OUR RIGHTS
All of this legislation shows a growing public appetite to confront the PFAS crisis. But, despite the best of intent, none of this patchwork of laws comes even close to protecting our health. In fact, the passage of such flawed laws may prove quite destructive because of a false sense of security. It simply isn’t enough to ban one product, such as firefighting foam, when they’re found in thousands other commonly used consumer items.
My reason for hope comes from a period of American environmental history that changed the nation and passage of the most successful consumer-empowering law in the last fifty years, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. Also known as Proposition 65, California voters overwhelmingly passed it with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
If we had forty-nine more Proposition 65 laws in the other states, the nation’s cancer incidence would be lower than today and children would be healthier.
Conceived and drafted by attorney-activist Barry Groveman who was head of the Los Angeles County Environmental Crimes and OSHA Division, Proposition 65 is a model of empowering citizens. It has saved lives, made everyday products safer and more climate friendly, and spurred technology and innovation, all at a very low cost to industry, and with great health savings. Unfortunately, we as a nation (and its home state) take this legislative miracle for granted. We shouldn’t.
Proposition 65’s success stems from its incorporation of five principles that, sadly, seem revolutionary even today:
1. Citizens have a right to know what is in their food, water, air, products or environment.
2. They have the right to enforce the law when government fails to do its job to protect the people.
3. Consumers have a right to demand chemicals go through pre-market safety testing.
4. Regulation should be by category instead of simply naming individual chemicals.
5. People have the right to write their laws.
Imagine, if you will, that early on in the PFAS crisis, thirty years ago in 1989, these five principles had been animating the law in New York and there had been the right-to-know as there was then in California. John Hickey would be alive today. A forty-seven-year-old male would have avoided testicular cancer and another young man could have avoided twenty-eight rounds of chemotherapy. A community would not be going through the devastating equivalent of a mass shooting… People have the right to know what chemical toxins are in their food, water, air, and other products.
But besides the right to know, Proposition 65 empowers citizens to enforce laws in the absence of governmental resources or will. On a national and global level, citizen enforcers are essential to end the larger PFAS crisis. PFAS are found in thousands of products, both produced here and imported from countries where they widely used.
Even if states or our federal government ban all PFAS, the laws will simply be paper tigers: the only way to clean up the marketplace and communities is to empower citizen enforcers who know how to look for products with undisclosed chemical toxins and do the job of testing and then prosecuting scoff laws when states either lack resources or will.
It might surprise some people to know that of the approximately 84,000 chemicals now in use, only a few percent have ever been fully safety tested.
Without pre-market testing, the third principle embodied in Proposition 65, we will never reclaim our rights: in California, a company must be able to prove both the ingredients and known contaminants in its products are safe.
This reverses the burden that today requires people to first get cancer or some other insidious kind of disease in order to protect themselves or their community, and, by then, of course, it’s too late (the law doesn’t offer any kind of protection at all). We haven’t prevented anything. That’s what happened in Hoosick Falls.
But, in California, when I discovered the carcinogen dioxane in Herbal Essence and Pantene shampoos sold in that state, I sued Procter & Gamble. Since dioxane was known to the state to cause cancer, I demanded P&G prove it was safe. They couldn’t and instead signed a court-approved consent judgement that required them to significantly reduce or eliminate dioxane from their products, making them safer nationwide.
Otherwise, they’d have to put a warning on every product that it contains a carcinogen. If pre-market safety testing had been required of PFOA in New York, the chemical could have been eliminated by citizen action long ago and companies would have had to disclose that it was in the water, and people could have taken protective actions instead of having to wait to get sick.
Although some state and federal laws have finally begun to regulate and restrict individual PFAS such as PFOA, newer versions called Gen X are being developed to evade regulation. There will be another distant evolution after that, evading regulation. This is why it is wise to regulate by categories instead of individual chemicals. Proposition 65 began this novel concept, using what we knew then (which was more limited) about carcinogens and reproductive toxins.
The state of California regulated any chemical known to cause these effects. Instead of focusing on individual or all PFAS, public health officials should be forced to regulate categories: carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and multi-generational, immune, reproductive and nervous system toxins should be regulated or banned with notification required on the label of the product or water report, as in Proposition 65.
Finally, the people must be the ones to write the law. As a nation, some of our most democratizing legislation came out of the progressive era of the 1930s when corrupt governments were being cleaned up. Some twenty-two states, mostly in the West, now allow for the initiative process, the way that Proposition 65 was passed. When the people voted directly on Proposition 65, its language was clear and concise and not diluted by partisan amendments that allowed the regrettable substitution policies we see in place today.
If ever there were a need for passage of Prop. 65-like laws, now is the time.
In January 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced “The Consumer Right to Know Act,” which closely parallels Proposition 65. This long-overdue legislation is now “pending,” according to the New York DEC; another source notes, there have “been several callings/petitions for the Governor to sign asap.”
A few more states joining with California and perhaps New York could form a powerful force for change.
Sadly, the story of Hoosick Falls is no longer unique. Throughout the country men and women are encountering the same toxic reality. Sixteen-million Americans are known to live where their water is highly contaminated with PFAS, but as many as 110 million are being exposed to lower levels in their tap water, according to the Environmental Working Group.
“We are only beginning to understand what is happening to the victims of PFAS poisoning,” says Loreen Hackett, another resident of Hoosick Falls who leads a coalition of locally impacted communities and is one of the town’s cancer victims.
“It’s not just the direct organ (penile/sperm) impact—it also comes down to the disruptive effects on the thyroid and hormones that are being linked to reproductive issues in both men and women. And those particular issues are getting more and more focus in the last five years or so due to their findings of serious detrimental effects at even lower doses than previously known.”
In an email to Rep. Delgado and activists groups, Michael Hickey wrote that the town needs more help. He said he “hopes to put together a more aggressive game plan for medical monitoring.”
“We need screening and education for testicular cancer in the high schools of contaminated communities,” he told me. ”We need to educate and prepare young people who may move out of a once-contaminated community for the possibilities of illness down the road. Forever-chemicals mean the possibility of getting sick is always there. A better understanding of future illnesses must be taught at a younger age to create earlier detection by self examinations. My concern is if people move out of Hoosick Falls and their life evolves they forget about the exposures they grew up with.”
Most men reading this report right now, no doubt, have no idea whether their water is contaminated with PFOA or any other PFAS. We have a right to know.
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Lead Photo Credit: auslander on iStock.