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PFOA Drinking Water Contamination

The PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) water contamination problem began in West Virginia in the early 1980s. DuPont chemical company, the makers of Teflon, purchased a 60-acre plot of farmland and used it to dump waste generated from its Parkersburg, West Virginia, plant.

There were cows on that land, cattle belonging to local farmers. They began to act sickly and 153 died. According to the New York Times, farmer Wilbur Tennant called a lawyer, and showed him video of a large pipe discharging green water with bubbles into the creek running through the property—a creek from which the cattle regularly drank. Tennant and his lawyer filed a federal suit against DuPont in 1999 in the Southern District of West Virginia.

Company documents unearthed during the case revealed a chemical called PFOA, a hazardous substance. DuPont had dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into ponds on their plant property, from which it could seep into the ground. From there, it contaminated drinking water of nearby communities, including Parkersburg, Vienna, Little Hocking and Lubeck.

The documents also revealed that DuPont was aware of animal studies showing potential harms from PFOA, as well as tests showing PFOA present in local water. They also found high concentrations of the chemical in the creek that ran through Tennant’s property, but failed to tell him.

After this and other evidence came to light, DuPont settled with the Tennants. But the word was out, and now the company is defending an additional about 3,500 PFOA lawsuits filed by plaintiffs claiming injury from PFOA-contaminated water. They also agreed to a $70 million class action settlement in 2004—which included a mandate that the company pay for the installation of water treatment technology for the six related water districts—and a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA in 2006.

Now, it seems as if history may be repeating itself. PFOA was recently discovered in the public water supply in Hoosick Falls, New York, as well as in nearby communities. Plaintiffs have filed a class action lawsuit against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, current and former owners of the plant that is believed to be the source of the contamination.

What is PFOA?

Also called “C8” (because it has 8 carbons) or “Ammonium Perfluorooctanoate (APFO),” PFOA is a toxic chemical used for decades to make Teflon and other stain- and water-resistant products, including fire-fighting foams, ski-wax, Gore-Tex jackets, coating additives, and cleaning products. It belongs to a class of chemicals called “polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs),” which have been in use since the 1950s in a variety of industries.

Early animal studies suggested that these chemicals could be harmful to humans, and DuPont scientists issued internal warnings about the chemicals as early as 1961, according to DuPont records. Medical studies in the 1970s and 80s conducted by both DuPont and 3M, the chief supplier of the chemical, also showed that C8 built up in human blood, was resistant to breakdown in the environment, and could cause serious health problems.

Yet the company kept the information to itself, and the public was left in the dark. C8 was not—and is still not—regulated by the government or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), though that may soon change.

EPA Asks for Elimination of PFOA

Because DuPont and 3M and other companies were allowed to continue manufacturing this dangerous chemical for decades without oversight, it is now widespread in the U.S. population. In a 2007 study, researchers examined blood samples from a representative 2003-2004 sample of the general population, and discovered PFOA and three other PFCs in 98 percent of the samples. The chemical has also been found in the blood of vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, gray seals, Alaskan polar bears, sea turtles, midwestern bald eagles, and many other forms of wildlife.

Because of the dangers, in 2002, 3M discontinued its production of PFOA and its related compounds. The EPA in 2006 launched a global program encouraging companies to reduce PFOA and its presence in products by 2010, and to eliminate them completely by 2015. In its May 2015 issue, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives published “The Madrid Statement,” in which 200 scientists from a variety of disciplines expressed their concerns about this class of chemicals, and recommended that countries put into place new laws that would limit their use to only the most essential items.

The most compelling evidence for the elimination of these chemicals came from the 2004 class-action settlement between plaintiffs and DuPont.

C8 Science Panel Links PFOA to Cancer

As part of the settlement, DuPont paid more than $30 million to fund an independent company known as the “C8 Health Project.” It’s task, first of all, was to conduct a survey of PFOA contamination in residents of communities near the DuPont Washington Works Facility in Ohio.

Between 2005 and 2006, about 70,000 people enrolled to have their blood tested. Researchers found a population geometric mean of 32.91 ng/mL of PFOA—500 percent higher than previously reported for the American population.

After that, the C8 Science Panel—a group of 3 epidemiologic scientists—conducted a series of studies over a period of several years to determine what, if any, health risks were linked to PFOA. They reported a probable link between C8 and the following:

  • diagnosed high cholesterol
  • ulcerative colitis
  • thyroid disease
  • testicular cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • pregnancy-induced hypertension

As a result of these studies, DuPont must now make $235 million available to the class-action members to test for potential C8-related diseases. These studies added to the evidence we already had, from previous animal and laboratory studies, showing that the chemical remains in the human body for a long time, as it does in the environment, and that during that time, it can damage certain systems. Other issues previously linked with exposure include developmental problems in unborn children, reduced immune function, endocrine disruption, and liver and pancreatic damage.

Hoosick Falls, NY Reports PFOA Water Contamination

In 2013, a Hoosick Falls resident’s father died of kidney cancer. There was no such cancer in his family. The man had worked at a plant that made plastics similar to Teflon for 35 years.

According to documents on the Hoosick Falls website, officials may have been aware as far back as August 2014 that the water supply could be contaminated with PFOA. That month, a concerned resident requested water samples for analysis. The mayor refused, as the state of New York didn’t require PFOA testing at the time, so he paid for the analyses. The concerned resident’s research led him to the DuPont class-action lawsuit settlements, and the C8 Science Panel and their findings on PFOA. The results of the water tests showed the chemical at 540 ppt.

Village officials later analyzed samples from a well first. Results showed PFOA levels exceeded the recommended level, yet officials brushed it off as not constituting an immediate health hazard.

Indeed, there was no “required” minimum level of PFOA in the water supply, but the EPA had, in 2009, established a provisional health advisory of only 400 ppt for the chemical. In 2014, they stated that if this level was exceeded, residents should discontinue the use of the water for drinking or cooking.

On November 25, 2015, EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck—aware of the PFOA contamination in Hoosick Falls—sent a letter to Mayor Borge. She reiterated that PFOA water contamination had been discovered in the groundwater and drinking water at higher-than-advised levels. She recommended that bottled water be provided to residents and that the water not be used for cooking, until PFOA concentrations could be reduced

As late as December 2015, even after the EPA had sent their letter to the Mayor, officials were still assuring residents that the water was safe.

New York Slow to React to Water Contamination Scare

It wasn’t until January 2016 that Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency for Hoosick Falls and put the wheels in motion on actions to remedy the situation. By March 13, 2016—over a year-and-a-half after the concerned resident’s first requested water samples—the New York Times reported that the new filter system installed in Hoosick Falls had successfully cleared the PFOA from the municipal water supply.

Residents haven’t heard the end of the problem, however. On February 20, 2016, state officials announced that the chemical had also been found in the water in Petersburgh, NY, and soon after, in wells in North Bennington.

Concerned citizens across the nation are now demanding that the EPA regulate PFOA the way it does other dangerous toxins like arsenic and lead. The agency is expected to set a new advisory of only 100 ppt for long-term exposure this spring.

PFOA Contamination Lawsuits

As far back as 2001, class-action lawsuits have been filed against companies over PFOA water contamination. So far, communities affected include those in Ohio, New York, Vermont, Alabama, and Minnesota.

DuPont is currently defending about 3,500 such cases, even after settling with other plaintiffs in the past. In the first of these lawsuits to go to trial in October 2015 in Columbus, Ohio, they were found liable for the plaintiff’s kidney cancer, and were ordered to pay $1.6 million in damages. This was the first of six planned bellwether trials in the consolidated litigation there.

In January 2016, Reuters reported that DuPont will face 40 trials a year starting in April 2017 involving plaintiffs allegedly injured by PFOA contamination from the plant in West Virginia, unless both parties find a way to resolve the remaining cases.

Meanwhile, it is expected that more will people come forward seeking damages because of contamination in New York and surrounding areas. In February 2016, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, current and former owners of the plant that has been named by the state of New York as the source of the contamination.

Other residents are said to be considering similar claims, as more evidence comes in. Samples from beneath the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics site, for example, showed PFOA levels up to 40 times greater than the EPA’s guideline. The investigation continues, however, to determine the extent of the contamination, and what companies may be responsible.

The New York Department of Health has stated they will continue testing public and private wells. They also plan to start taking residents’ blood tests, and to study cancer incidents to track down any potential relation to PFOA.

How a PFOA Water Contamination Lawyer Can Help

We represent Hoosick Falls residents who we will be filing personal injury and property damages claims for. If you or a family member believes you may have been sickened by PFOA water contamination, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit in an effort to recover damages. Contact the lawyers at Chaffin Luhana for help. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure they properly dispose of waste, and for sharing information about potentially dangerous chemicals with the appropriate government authorities, and with the public. Contact us today to discuss your potential case.

how not to be a lawyer

according to eric t. chaffin

“My father was a union witness at an arbitration in a steel mill. After the hearing, my father, dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt, stuck out his hand to shake hands with the company’s lawyer. The lawyer refused. The lawyer was not upset because my dad got the best of him but because he frowned upon working class people. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. My dad used this story to remind me to respect others, to remember where I came from and as an example of how not to conduct myself as a lawyer.”

eric t. chaffin

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