EDITORIAL: What’re you drinking?

IS IT SAFE TO DRINK THE WATER? That used to be a catch phrase signifying clueless American tourists. Smart travelers visited places that had the comforts of home, with clean water the top requirement. Harder now to be so smug.

Flint, MI, is far away and a big city. It’s possible to sympathize with those folks without dwelling on the extent to which they were betrayed by their elected leaders. Hoosick Falls, however, is at the north end of neighboring Rensselaer County. Its smaller scale tragedy has unfolded too close to home. The Hoosick Falls factory of Saint Gobain, a manufacturer of specialty plastics, appears to be the source of a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The chemical has seeped into the Hoosick Falls village water supply and the concentration of PFOA is so high that the state warned residents not to drink or bathe with water from their taps. That’s creepy bad.

The state departments of health and environmental conservation now overseeing a new carbon filtration system that Governor Cuomo said last week has reduced PFOA contamination from the well water that serves as the village water supply. The levels are now at “non-detectable levels,” but officials are still advising residents to stick with bottled water. Meanwhile other communities in the region are finding PFOA in their local water sources.

PFOA is a manmade chemical used in producing one of the everyday miracles of modern living in the mid-20th century, the “non-stick” coating on kitchen cookery called Teflon. Ladies! You’ll never have to scrub that skillet again! DuPont, the company that created Teflon, had a slogan, “Better Living through Chemistry,” and there was no better symbol of that promise than the triumph of science over stuck-on food.

Got a problem with that? Research so far has not confirmed that PFOA causes cancer or disrupts our hormones. The incidence in humans who worked around the substance suggests an elevated risk of certain types of cancer in the organs where the PFOA accumulates. But it’s not conclusive. And animal studies are useful in showing hormonal malfunctions, we’re not mice.

It’s confusing and it triggers a natural response is to shut out whatever hints at bad news. But that won’t help in this case. The Environmental Protection Agency says that PFOA is seldom made or used anymore, but if you want to meet someone who’s been exposed to the chemical, go look in a mirror. Traces of PFOA are literally everywhere. Nobody was making Teflon above the Arctic Circle, but PFOA is measurable in blood samples taken there too. It’s everybody’s problem.

There’s no reason to worry that high level of PFOA pollution from Hoosick Falls could directly affect Columbia County, so why did the Chatham Town Board vote last week to have the water tested at Crellin Park and other locations around town. The board is looking for toxic materials we know about and possibly some we don’t. That’s called looking for trouble. It’s exactly what the board should be doing.

Politicians in particular like to fret in public about how future generations will blame us for leaving a mess for them to clean up. But PFOA, along with PCBs, asbestos, plutonium and non-reusable everything else are just some of the double-edged legacy our elders have left for us. We’ve loved having the stuff until we began to experience the real cost. We know we can’t clean up all of it. But we can take small steps when opportunities for progress suddenly materialize. The current, widespread concern over water quality is one of those opportunities.

Taking a cue from the Town Board in Chatham, its time the whole county participated in a coordinated testing regime for local water sources. Call it a State of the Water report. Let the public know whether the quality of our water is getting better or worse.

This costs money. The estimate in Chatham was $500 per sample. To sustain this effort will require funding from county, state and municipal governments. Water bills would likely go up. So would taxes on properties that do not have municipal water service but nonetheless benefit from efforts to protect our water supplies.

Let’s hope no Hoosick Falls nightmare lurks in this county and let’s admit that we can’t afford to depend on hope alone. It’s comforting to take our water supplies for granted… horrifying when we can’t. If there are threats from water pollutants, the sooner we recognize and address them, the safer we will be.

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