ChemFab neighbors say they were sickened
In this five-part series, Jim Therrien, who writes for New England Newspapers in Vermont and VTDigger.org, and VTDigger reporter Mike Polhamus examine the history of the ChemFab plants in Bennington and the impact of toxic chemical emissions from the Teflon coating factories on local residents.
NORTH BENNINGTON — Jenny Kelly suffers from Graves' disease, an incurable condition that's the most common cause of hyperthyroidism.
The 31-year-old North Bennington resident also has cysts on her thyroid gland. The illness makes her feel sluggish, weak and tired, Kelly said. Lately she's been trying to combat the fatigue with regular exercise.
Kelly lives in a two-story house on a well-maintained property with a big lawn, a jungle gym and a dirt driveway. Two American flags adorn the house, which rests near the crest of a hill that overlooks the former ChemFab factory.
The mother of three said she believes ChemFab poisoned her well with toxic chemicals from nearby smokestacks. The Teflon-coating company was once based in North Bennington and now is part of the multinational corporation Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.
Kelly grew up in Connecticut, a native of Danbury, but frequently visited North Bennington as a child. She remembers the distinctive noxious odor from the ChemFab factory back then.
The burnt plastic smell was caused by the same manufacturing process that dispersed perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, from smokestacks at the factory on Water Street to residential properties nearby, according to state documents. ChemFab emissions were spread across a radius that extends several miles around the factory.
PFOA is toxic in minute amounts. The chemical is linked to a number of chronic ailments that take years to develop. Thyroid disease is among the most prominent, but other diseases thought to be caused by exposure include ulcerative colitis, hypertension, liver damage, high cholesterol, and testicular and kidney cancers.
Negative health effects from PFOA poisoning can take decades to show up. But several North Bennington residents near the former ChemFab factory have contracted serious illnesses in recent years that they believe are related to exposure to plant chemicals.
Kelly is one of those victims. She lives about 700 feet from the former ChemFab site.
Hyperthyroidism is usually an inherited disease, but no one in her family has the condition, Kelly said.
She survived leukemia as a child, Kelly said, and she seems to take her thyroid ailments in stride. She doesn't raise her voice or show signs of anger or distress as she talks about her physical ailments that she believes are the result of a corporation's enrichment.
"I'm disappointed, because anyone can make mistakes, but I'm disappointed [ChemFab] didn't have the knowledge before using a product like that," she said. "That would be a no-brainer if they knew."
Regulators who worked with ChemFab agree the plant's managers probably didn't know that PFOA and other chemicals would harm North Bennington residents. ChemFab executives, however, acknowledged in memos that they were releasing toxins into the air.
Kelly's thyroid illness represents a serious threat.
"If [the cysts] start growing, it'll affect my swallowing," Kelly said. "If it becomes enlarged, I'd have to get surgery."
Her thyroid now produces thyroid hormone at a rate that's "off the charts," according to her doctor, Kelly said.
She found out she had the disease last year, during a routine checkup. She believes the illness was caused by the poisoned groundwater.
Kelly's well contains one of the highest concentrations of PFOA in the area. She has been drinking water from it for six years. Kelly and her family moved into the home eight years ago come November and stopped drinking from the well in February 2016, the moment she discovered what was in it.
The PFOA concentration in her well is 3,500 parts per trillion, which has risen from 2,330 parts per trillion when first tested last year. State officials last year set a limit on PFOA contamination for drinking water at 20 parts per trillion.
An engineer, Dave Hassel, who for decades worked at a plant similar to ChemFab's in New York state, estimates that the factory in North Bennington released about 6 tons of PFOA over the 25 years it operated.
Because the carbon-fluorine bonds that make up PFOA are among the strongest compounds, the PFOA dispersed by air currents over a several-mile radius from the ChemFab factory hasn't broken down. Instead, the chemical, which is toxic in minute quantities, has migrated, often into underground aquifers.
Hassel says the 6 tons represents enough PFOA to pollute 10 Lake Champlains worth of drinking water to a concentration above the state's 20 parts per trillion limit.
Unlike other polluted sites across the country where environmental damage has come from fluid spills, in North Bennington toxins from the smokestack exhaust settled on the ground near the factory, and through rainfall traveled through soils to groundwater.
Most of the toxic material is believed to have been deposited over a small area east of the factory — where Kelly's and dozens of other homes are located — as a result of prevailing winds, according to maps in a report Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics commissioned this year.
Data collected by the Vermont Department of Health for the period from 2003 and 2012 shows no unusual incidence of kidney or testicular cancers in North Bennington and the western portion of Bennington proper, in the area of the former ChemFab factory.
Kidney and testicular cancers are among the ailments with a probable link to PFOA exposure, according to a massive study resulting from a successful suit against DuPont for a PFOA spill in West Virginia. The study also found an association between PFOA exposure and ulcerative colitis, noncancerous thyroid disease, high cholesterol and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
Links are still being established between PFOA exposure and other chronic health conditions, according to research by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Linking PFOA exposure to specific health harms is difficult, however, because studies require huge numbers of people in order to arrive at statistically valid results. Likewise, small towns with PFOA-tainted water don't always show the clear associations between the poison and the symptoms that can be seen in larger populations.
In Bennington, for example, evidence suggests affected residents suffer a greater incidence of high blood pressure than other Vermonters, according to Department of Health spokesman Ben Truman.
"Statistically significant associations were seen between PFOA blood levels and the likelihood that people reported having high cholesterol, taking medication for high blood pressure, and having had high blood pressure during pregnancy (among women who reported having had children)," Truman wrote in an email. "The association between PFOA concentrations in blood and either testicular cancer or kidney cancer was not evaluated due to the small number of people who reported those outcomes."
Although the link is sometimes hard to discern between illnesses and PFOA levels in the blood, there's a clear link between PFOA levels in a person's drinking water and the amount of PFOA in the person's blood, Truman said.
Kelly has not had her blood tested yet. She said she is "very curious" to know the concentration of PFOA in her system. A neighbor has a very high concentration of PFOA, Kelly said, and the neighbor's well contains only 500 parts per trillion of PFOA.
"I can imagine mine's probably up there," Kelly said.
She doesn't know how much PFOA her three children carry in their blood either. Daughter Becca and son Taylor still live at home.
There isn't much Kelly could do even if she knew, state officials have said, since there's no known treatment for PFOA poisoning.
Former Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen has said there isn't "a lot of actionable data" from blood results.
The chemical will dissipate over time, however. Kelly's doctor has told her it will take at least three years to get the pollutant out of her bloodstream.
Her three children have had similar recurring stomach ailments that seem to be linked to the PFOA, Kelly said.
The symptoms abated after state officials told them to stop drinking the water last year, she said, but they're all going to carry PFOA in their blood for years.
Jason Turey, Kelly's boyfriend, says the family's worry over the health effects is "a huge burden, and a major inconvenience."
"I'm nervous because of Jenny," Turey said. "It is alarming, with the girls, and the long-term effects, what is going to happen down the line."
They've thought of selling the house, Kelly said — it sits on a nice piece of property with friendly neighbors and a beautiful view — but the tainted well would make it a difficult sale. "No one's going to want contaminated water," Kelly said.
Kelly's neighbors are stuck in the same situation.
"This is ground zero," said Sandy Sumner, a 65-year-old who lives a few houses downhill from Kelly and her family, about 1,000 feet east of the former ChemFab plant.
The prevailing winds are from the direction of the factory, "so we got the brunt of their exhaust," Sumner said.
A retired woodworker, Sumner built his house in 1990, and it looks like a builder's home — spacious, charming and well-proportioned. It boasts a dramatic view of Mount Anthony from the back deck, and a lush, blooming garden covers much of the back yard.
Over the front yard stretch expansive inset beds where Sumner and his wife used to grow vegetables. Now, out of concern for the PFOA still in the soil, the beds lie unused, their bare soil overlain with hay.
Sumner said he knew of the nearby ChemFab plant and its smokestacks when he built the home, but considered the level of emissions at that time to be acceptable. However, the pollution intensified to the point that he began to worry it might affect the couple's health, Sumner said. The maps Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics produced this year show the factory's pollution levels ramping up steadily through the 1990s.
"There were days when you didn't want to work outside," Sumner said. "There were many nights when you had to keep your window closed."
The factory's gray exhaust plumes weren't as noticeable as the smell, Sumner said, which "you'd feel in your throat as much as smell it. Your throat would start to get tense immediately."
Sumner and his wife began experiencing headaches and sore throats that seemed connected to the exhaust, he said. It wasn't hard to notice the connection, Sumner said, because the worst plumes of ChemFab's emissions carried an unmistakable odor that often preceded their symptoms.
Repeatedly in the 1990s, Sumner complained to the state and ChemFab managers, but it accomplished nothing, he said.
State regulators said there was nothing they could do and told him ChemFab was following the law, Sumner recalls. Company executives told him that better pollution control devices than those already installed would be too expensive, Sumner said.
One ChemFab manager asked for a call when the fumes got overwhelming, so he could experience it himself. But when Sumner would call, the manager wouldn't show up, or he'd arrive hours later, after the wind had changed, Sumner said.
"Regardless, he'd always say, `I came up there and never smelled anything,'" Sumner said. "My instincts told me at the time that it was bullshit."
"I remember saying to the guy, `I think this is carcinogenic,' and he blew a stack," Sumner said. "He came back at me and said it's not. It turns out the fucking shit is carcinogenic."
Sumner considered moving in the 1990s, but he'd left New York to build his dream home in the pristine environment he thought Vermont offered.
"When you're in a situation, and you don't want to believe something in your head, you'll justify the situation," he said. "Even though we were actually getting sick from the exhaust from time to time, I couldn't get myself to sell this house, because I'd put so much into it.
"People ask, `Why'd you stay?' and it was because I always wanted to build a house, and I waited until I was close to 40 to do it, and I built what I thought was my perfect dream house. I had waited until I knew exactly what I wanted, and saved up to do it. It took six months to clear the lot. It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears."
Finally, in 2002, the plant closed.
"As soon as they left, it was great. I couldn't believe my luck, really," Sumner said.
"As soon as they moved away, we forgot about it," until March, when the couple learned the factory was the source of the chemical in their well, Sumner said.
Neither he nor his wife experienced health effects, he said, but their water contains PFOA at 780 parts per trillion concentration. Two neighbors have already had cancers that appear linked to the pollution, he said. One had testicular cancer, another had thyroid cancer.
Statistically, he's been told, even if 100 neighbors developed thyroid cancer, it would still not be enough to prove a connection for the purpose of winning a lawsuit.
"To really prove a health connection between chemical toxicity and health issues, you need thousands of people," he said.
That's one reason he, Kelly and others are seeking compensation for future health monitoring and lost home value — but not for any damage to their health — through a class-action lawsuit against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.
As retirees, Sumner said, the couple's home and its value was to be their nest egg.
"We definitely were counting on the sale of this house to move us forward, when the time came, and if we can't sell it for market value it's going to hurt us very badly," he said.
Jim Sullivan, who lives a couple of houses up the hill from Kelly, said his well is contaminated with high levels of PFOA. He worries the chemical might have already harmed his health. The 56-year-old said that at the very least he hopes the class-action suit will recover some portion of his lost home value, along with the costs of future medical monitoring.
Sullivan said he experienced a rare form of heart attack three years ago. He wonders if that and other health issues his family has had might be linked to the PFOA pollution.
"We've had health issues ourselves, yeah. But is it directly correlated? Maybe," Sullivan said.
A sense of uncertainty about their future health is one of the most pervasive concerns among residents who live near the old plant, he said. Medical monitoring would alleviate some of the worry.
"You go on about your life, because there isn't anything you can do about it but, yeah, you think about it, and you worry about it," he said. "If I sat there all day staring into space, saying, `Oh, what's it doing to me?' you know, you'd go crazy."
The suit does not seek to cover costs that Kelly might incur if she needs surgery on her thyroid, or treatment costs for high blood pressure or other heart-related issues Sullivan might suffer. Anyone seeking damages for an illness they think is related to the pollution would need to go to court on their own, Sullivan said.
Proving such a link, he said, is difficult.
"To really prove a health connection between chemical toxicity and health issues, you need thousands of people," Sumner said.
This is what he is afraid of.
Describing his heart condition, Sullivan said: "It's extremely unusual for anybody in my demographic to have that. Does it have to do with PFOA? I don't know, and if you try to litigate it, talk about delays."
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, sought this year to pass legislation that would have applied strict liability to companies for contaminant releases. Under strict liability, a company does not need to be found negligent in order to be held liable for harms from pollution and contamination. Rather, plaintiffs simply must prove the pollution occurred.
The bill would have made it easier to hold companies responsible for toxic spills, Campion said. Business groups and chemical industry lobbyists mounted sustained opposition, and the legislation foundered late in the session. Campion has promised to bring the legislation back next year.
One legislative advisory group suggested that the state allow people to directly sue companies that are suspected of exceeding permit limits, instead of waiting for government enforcement. That idea was not incorporated in the draft legislation, according to Ken Rumelt, a professor at Vermont Law School.
North Bennington residents who are seeking to recover medical costs for treating PFOA-related illnesses have no recourse but to take companies to court.
A case in West Virginia could be instructive. In February, DuPont, the company that developed PFOA, reached a $671 million settlement with residents who lived near the plant in Parkersburg over releases of the chemical into the air and water at its plant. The residents, who had fallen ill with diseases associated with PFOA exposure, filed 3,550 individual lawsuits. The settlement amounts to about $190,000 per plaintiff, before subtracting attorneys' fees and other costs.
For the time being, Kelly and her neighbors say they're trying to keep their family physicians informed, and they're waiting and hoping. Kelly, Sullivan and Sumner are among about 200 North Bennington homeowners who will eventually be hooked up to the town water system as part of a $20 million settlement state authorities reached with Saint-Gobain last month.
Kelly said that will make life a bit easier. The bottled water they receive is a hassle, she said, and the carbon filter now installed on their tap often doesn't work properly.
One thing that won't change is the fact that she suffers from an incurable disease linked to PFOA exposure. And the effects of drinking tainted well water for six years could lead to other ailments that may not be apparent for decades into the future, health officials say.
Kelly doesn't complain, but she said she is scared. She hopes the fear, too, will pass.
"I am concerned," she said. "I just want it all to be over with."
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