Motherhood and fury met up last night in a forum where residents of Flint, MI and Hoosick Falls were united by woe and water.
Poisoned water. Water contaminated by lead in Michigan and chemicals in Hoosick Falls.
“Word spread like wildfire throughout the city,” said teacher Darlene McClendon, a member of the United Teachers of Flint/American Federation of Teachers, when it was discovered that lead was coming from their kitchen faucets and bathroom taps. Students asked her: “Am I going to die? Am I going to get sick?”
Garbage bags were put over school water fountains, but that was after the fact. In the last three years, McClendon has seen a majority of students develop aggression and nervousness, along with attention deficit disorder. Behavior and learning problems are just several side effects of exposure to lead.
McClendon was one of four women who spoke to 75 people at a Hoosick Falls forum as part of their “Mothers of Flint Tour” to address the public health crisis that has sickened family members, put all at risk and destroyed their community. Hoosick Falls activist mothers spoke next.
Passing the microphone from hand to hand — linking black and Caucasian, rural and urban — the mothers told of the time and energy it takes to find and transport enough jugs of water for nightly baths for their children; for cleaning fruit; for brushing teeth; to cook.
Chemistry teacher Brian Van Arsdale, president of the Hoosick Falls Teachers Association, remembers when a student brought him a letter his family had received from the local water department explaining that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) had been found in the water supply, asking “What does this mean?” Van Arsdale brought the letter to his colleagues in the science department that afternoon and they began researching. They were stunned.
“The next day in class, I told all my students to stop drinking the water,” he said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation earlier this year designated Hoosick Falls a federal “Superfund” site and then identified Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell as “potentially responsible” for the PFOA contamination. The Hoosick Falls plastics facility is located in the village close to the community’s water supply.
When Hoosick Falls residents were tested for blood levels, the results came in a week before final exams and Regents. “Their minds were so not about school. They wanted answers,” Van Arsdale said. “If we can’t help them be comfortable, there’s no way they’re going to be learning.”
“Acceptable” levels in New York are 70 parts per trillion, though in Vermont — a few scant miles away from Hoosick — the advisory levels are 20. Other states set it in the teens. Some of the Hoosick students were 120 or above, said science and technology teacher Tony Malikowski, who also lives in Hoosick.
“Kids were walking around with blank expressions. Some were getting numb,” he said.
“It’s like a loss of innocence. You can’t undo what you’ve learned. It has profoundly changed us,” said Robert Allen, Hoosick Falls grades 7-12 band teacher and panel moderator. His words softly echoed the strident testimonies of a lineup of mothers talking about the illness and loss from poisoned water in their communities.
Anyone who is unsure about the effects of PFOA’s need only read “Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, VA.” Allen said, calling it “The most frightening read you will ever see.”
Hoosick Falls mother Michelle Baker recalled telling her 14-year-old daughter that they were safe because they had a well. She said it was “the biggest shock was to find out that our water, like all of you in this room, is contaminated by Saint Gobain.”
In Flint, municipal leaders attempted to save money by getting water from a river instead of nearby Detroit water supply. The pipes used were corroded. Lead seeped into the water supply.
“It’s outrageous that there has to be a political movement to protect water,” said Zephyr Teachout, a NYSUT-supported candidate for U.S. Congress. “A nation that poisons its water … poisons its future.”
Infrastructure has not been replaced in Flint. In Hoosick, water filters have been provided to households for point of entry. But the companies at fault for the problem have not been accountable.
“I was a teacher for many years. We always worried about bullies,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. “I think we have a couple of bullies here.” He pledged continued union support, promising: “We can change things.”
“These moms fight like wolverines every day,” said Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Troy, who has asked U.S. attorneys to investigate the water crisis in Hoosick, claiming state government officials withheld information and failed to follow federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines to protect residents from cancer-causing water. “This is a form of corporate bullying and government bullying,” he told panelists.
According to the National Institute of Health, senators Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y sent a letter this summer to their agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asking them to help educate and assist the people of the Village of Hoosick Falls and the towns of Hoosick and Petersburgh.
The speakers said they have received support from some lawmakers and from many unions throughout their ordeals, including NYSUT, the New York State Nurses Association and the United Auto Workers, whose members who make airplane brake pads have been locked out by Honeywell Aerospace in Green Island.
Worker Susan Brennan testified about working with asbestos and how her son has elevated levels of lead and auditory response delay. She was pregnant with him while working there.
“Honeywell needs to be accountable,” she said, describing how the company “used to take barrels of resin and throw them out back in Green Island.”
The fight for accountability includes advocating for money for medical care and for regular, free testing for life, said participants.
The PFOA chemical is an immune suppressant, Allen explained, noting his seven-year-old child has frequent colds and fevers. Allen wants a ban of all chemicals within the PFOA family.
“It’s mind-boggling easy,” he said. “You just have to ban it. You don’t have to wait five years until people get cancer.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency:
“Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.”
PFOA, a man-made chemical used in nonstick coatings, is “extremely persistent and widespread” according to the National Institutes of Health. It is possibly linked to cancer, thyroid problems, lymphoma, hormone disruption and other illnesses. Visit https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/PFOA_FactSheet.html.