As a parent, and as the head of Vermont's environmental agency, I often ask myself, what will be our generation's environmental legacy? We strive to keep our families healthy and safe, our communities prosperous, and our natural environment free from the effects of harmful pollution. That is why it was so disturbing when we discovered that private drinking wells of over a hundred North Bennington residents were contaminated with a potentially harmful chemical, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), and that a public drinking water supply in Pownal serving 450 families also exceeded the recommended limits for this chemical.
Although the sources of pollution in North Bennington and Pownal are still under investigation, we know that PFOA was widely used to coat fabrics and wires, to manufacture Teflon, and was embedded in firefighting foam. PFOA has been linked with pancreatic, prostate and liver cancers, thyroid disease and other negative health impacts.
As the result of a series of lawsuits against DuPont, a principal manufacturer of PFOA, the chemical has been phased out over the last ten years. However, because it is a chemical that persists in the environment, PFOA can remain in our soil and water long after the companies have stopped using it, or have closed down operations.
Many Vermonters wonder how it could be that a harmful chemical has been in our drinking water for so long without our knowledge. It is because our federal environmental laws do not require chemical manufacturers to establish the safety of their products before putting them into the marketplace.
It was 1961 when manufacturers of PFOA first discovered the chemical's potential threats to human health. By that time, PFOA had already been in use for ten years. Nevertheless, it was not until 2006 that PFOA was first regulated through a voluntary phase-out program.
Advocates for stronger regulations of chemicals will tell us that it is not entirely a surprise that it took four decades before there was action against the use of PFOAs in manufacturing processes like those taking place in North Bennington. They would point out that the Toxic Substance Control Act, a federal law that was enacted in 1976 to limit the use of industrial chemicals that pose unreasonable risks to the health and the environment, has largely failed to achieve its objective. One reason is that TSCA included a provision that grandfathered 62,000 chemicals used in consumer products and industry at the time the law was adopted. This included PFOA. In addition, new chemicals can be reviewed by the US Environmental Protection Agency only if manufacturing companies themselves provide evidence of harm. Under this regime, only five new chemicals have been restricted under TSCA since its inception, despite more than 22,000 new chemicals being introduced to the market. The risk these old and new chemicals pose may only become apparent when well water becomes contaminated, when soils become unfit for gardens, or when human health is endangered.
In the coming weeks, the U.S. Congress will be working to update TSCA. Even before we were aware of the drinking water contamination in Bennington, Vermont, the Governor, our Congressional Delegation and I have been loud and clear; we need stronger protections from toxic chemicals. It is common sense that we should only allow new chemicals into the marketplace when we know they are safe. We need clear timelines for the EPA to evaluate the risks of chemicals that are already in use, and we must trust that EPA will act quickly to protect the public when new risks are found. And our safety standards should protect vulnerable populations, including workers, children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.
I am proud of the work done by Vermont's Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health. Staff and leaders worked quickly to identify the scope of the PFOA contamination and to ensure residents have safe water to drink, as well as answers to their many questions about the risks PFOA may pose to themselves and their loved ones. We will continue our efforts to monitor the health of impacted families and to clean up the contamination. But this is not enough.
Legacy sites like those in North Bennington and Pownal are not inevitable. With stronger environmental laws we can leave our children with a better environmental legacy than the one we inherited. After all, we can't say we didn't know better.
Deb Markowitz is the Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.