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Est. April 5, 2002
February 11, 2016 - Issue 640

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It’s Not Just Flint
All Of The Nation’s Waters
Need Testing


"The problem in every city and village and
other locations across the country where
there are dangerous toxins produced or
handled in factories and other places, officials
are loathe to declare their communities, or
even a part of them, a danger to anyone, for
obvious reasons and, especially economic reasons."

The poisoning of the children of Flint, Michigan, along with all of the other residents of that beleaguered city, is a wake-up call for the entire nation, that the water we drink every day and use for cooking and bathing could be harmful, if not deadly.

Take, for example, the plight of a small village in eastern New York, not far from the Vermont border. Hoosick Falls, population 3,501, is a village in turmoil. Until a short time ago, they were told that their water was fine to drink. In the past two weeks, all levels of government have been scrambling to find a solution to the problem and the people have been warned not to drink or use the water. Instead, they have been using bottled water and a filtration system is being installed for the entire village.

The problem? Their water supply is contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a hazardous, non-naturally occurring chemical that was for years used in the manufacture of non-stick cooking surfaces. The plant, bought by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in 1999, is now declared a state superfund site. As such, there will be money to mitigate the problem, but not necessarily eliminate the problem of PFOA in the ground, which may have infiltrated the ground water and local individual water wells.

PFOA has been used in a number of products, but is most easily recognized as one of the ingredients in Teflon, the famous non-stick material for household pots and pans, but it’s used (or has been used) in many other products. PFOA persists indefinitely in the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a non-enforceable limit of 400 parts per trillion (ppt).

The recent rush to analyze and then mitigate the danger of PFOA in Hoosick Falls all started when a man who grew up in the village believed there to have been excess cases of cancer, including in his own family. He had his own tap water tested and found there to be 540 ppt of PFOA. When Saint-Gobain tested the ground water under its plant, it found 18,000 ppt. (the EPA standard of 400 parts per trillion is about 4 teaspoons in enough water to fill a 10-mile string of rail tankers, the AP reported), and the test location is just 500 yards from the village’s water wells, according to the Associated Press. The EPA in December issued a warning not to drink the water, but until that time, village residents were told the water was safe to drink.

At this time, the dangerous levels of PFOA are still being studied, but all of the residents of the village are concerned about the health and safety of their children and all of their families. The concern also is for the value of their properties and the value of the village, itself. If people want to move, the concern is how will they get their equity from a life’s work, their homes, to start anew?

In Flint, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the governor and his administration, which apparently cared little for the people of the city and, while it will be difficult to prove that racism played the largest part in letting the toxins flow to city residents, racism (the city is 51 percent black) was doing its ugly work. In Hoosick Falls, where the vast majority of the population is white, the problem is the persistence of the toxin that is present and likely the main factor of the excessive rate of cancer.

In the New York village, the problem is the long-term effect of PFOA on people young and old, and that may have to play out over a period of years, while in Flint, the effect of lead on children is the primary concern. Medical experts have said that they can remove the lead from the body, but the damage that was done in the year in which they were being poisoned by lead in the water cannot be undone. And that damage includes lower IQ, behavioral problems, learning problems, and stunted growth, among other serious problems.

The problem in both places and the problem in every city and village and other locations across the country where there are dangerous toxins produced or handled in factories and other places, officials are loathe to declare their communities, or even a part of them, a danger to anyone, for obvious reasons and, especially economic reasons. There are all of the agencies that are supposed to protect the health and safety of people, but, unless they are called in to investigate, they usually assume that things are fine.

These agencies, like local and state health departments, the state environmental conservation departments, the EPA, and the older and bigger agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the U.S. Department of the Interior all have some responsibility to help maintain the quality of drinking water for hundreds of millions of citizens. When they fall down on the job or when they are not even called in until there is a crisis, large numbers of people are at risk and harm is done to individuals, families, and whole communities.

So it has happened in Flint and Hoosick Falls, but they are not alone, not by far. Since the surge of environmental awareness over the past half-century, it has become clear that the problems are widespread and it has become equally clear that agencies of government can only do so much. As in both of these communities, it was the people who caused government agencies to investigate and take action. Over the past decades, it has been non-profit environmental organizations that have taken the lead in identifying hazardous places and dangerous threats to water, air, and soil. These have been the spur to action by government, usually only after years of activity by individuals and groups, most of which have little or no money.

The environmental work of individuals and groups has been fought tooth and nail by politicians on the right, as dangers to the economic health of the community or nation. One only has to look at the vicious fight in favor of horizontal hydro fracturing for gas and oil by many politicians, or their opposition to the Clean Water Act. The resistance to taking any action to mitigate climate change by Republicans in Congress and lots of others (including some Democrats) stems from their stated opposition to anything that will harm “the American way of life,” which is based largely on consumerism. They will not tolerate any threat to the malls of America or their online counterparts.

Only when their own families are threatened with bodily harm will many of those politicians take any action, but that doesn’t happen often, because their homes and communities are far removed from the toxic dangers. That usually happened on “the other side of the tracks,” where the community’s industrial operations and pollution were the rule, starting with the railroads, themselves.

“The other side of the tracks” is a concept that we should be remembering now, because things have not changed that much. Those who live on the “other side of the tracks” are black, brown, immigrant, and the poor and it has been ever thus. Let’s not forget the Indian reservations. That’s where they put the trains, it’s where they put the dumps, it’s where they store toxic waste (or try to), and it’s where the chemical plants and oil refineries are located. How about the water in those places?

There is only one way to find out: Test the water in all of those places in the U.S. and make the resulting information easily available on line. Start with every community that has a municipal water system. In all areas, including the rural areas, do random testing of private wells, especially where there is a history of industrial activity. And, start in the poorest neighborhoods, using the latest census to find those places.

But, you say, that’s already done all across the country. And that is the point: In both Flint and Hoosick Falls, testing was done and officials assured the people who were drinking that water that everything was fine…until it wasn’t fine. The quality of water should be something that is reported widely, just as the weather is reported by every newspaper and television station, no matter how small. Congress should act on such an important issue. Elected officials and politicians are not drinking bad water and they should be forced to see that none of the people drink bad water. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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