Residents tested for chemical exposure
NEWBURGH >> In this chronically struggling city along the Hudson River, residents beset by poverty, high crime and boarded-up homes now have an entirely new worry — that their tap water may have exposed them to a chemical linked to cancer.
State officials recently launched an ambitious effort to offer blood tests to Newburgh’s 28,000 residents after the chemical PFOS — used for years in firefighting foam at the nearby military air base — was found in the city’s drinking water reservoir at levels exceeding federal guidelines.
PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonate, has been linked to cancer, thyroid problems and other serious health issues. Results of the blood testing, expected to be released early next year, won’t tell people whether they’re actually at increased risk for any specific health problem, but will show how their exposure compares to others.
Similar testing has been done in several smaller communities with water contaminated with PFOS or its close chemical cousin, PFOA, which is used in nonstick and stain-repellent coatings.
About 1,500 people were tested near an air base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and found to have slightly elevated levels of the chemicals.
In the rural New York villages of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, where plastics plants are being held liable for PFOA in public and private wells, tests of about 3,000 residents that began in February have found PFOA blood levels as high as 500 times the national average.
In 2014, PFOS was detected in 175-acre Lake Washington, the city’s drinking water supply, at a level 170 parts per trillion, well below the 400 ppt limit then recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When the EPA set a new level of 70 ppt for shortterm exposure in May 2016, the city declared an emergency and shifted to a new water source.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has identified nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base as the source of the PFOS, suspecting the chemical, used for years in firefighting emergencies and drills, got into a stream leading to the city reservoir.
Free blood tests are being offered through Nov. 19 to any resident who makes an appointment at one of seven clinics. But getting people tested in Newburgh presents special challenges. More than a third of residents live in poverty and more than 46 percent of households speak a language other than English at home.
Dr. Nathan Graber, director of the state health agency’s Center for Environmental Health, says his department is translating materials into Spanish and Creole and engaging with the city’s religious leaders, school superintendent and community groups to improve outreach.
This photo shows water intakes at Lake Washington in Newburgh. Residents of the upstate New York city already struggling with poverty and violent crime are now being told to have their blood tested for a toxic chemical. New York health officials have offered blood tests to the 28,000 residents of Newburgh because its water supply was found to have high levels of the cancer-linked chemical PFOS that was used for firefighting at the nearby military base.