This month a man in upstate New York has filed the first personal injury case involving a town's contaminated water.
In 1955, Cleveland Dodge Jr. founded Dodge Fibers in Hooksick Falls, New York and started producing insulation made from glass fiber and Teflon our of a factory on McCaffery Street. The company was eventually sold to AlliedSignal, the predecessor of Honeywell International, and again to Saint-Gobain, the company still in existence today at the original site. Since the 50's, one factor has remained a constant at factory sites across the town: the creation of Teflon.
Teflon, or Polytetrafluoroethylene, is a chemical that repels water and grease, and has seen popular use in products like non-stick pans, pizza boxes and other food containers, and even stain-resistant clothes. While Teflon itself has been found safe to use in products, the chemicals used to make Teflon have been found to have serious health consequences. In 1976,scientists discovered that traces of PFOA, a chemical agent used to make Teflon, could be found in human blood streams. By 1980, scientists knew that PFOA traces in blood would continue to accumulate to toxic levels.
In the early 2000s, factories in Hoosick Falls were pressured by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin phasing out PFOA. But they were in no rush. DuPont, one of the factories in Hoosick that regularly used PFOA, did not plan to completely phase out the chemical until 2015, the last possible date accepted by the EPA. By 2006, the EPA was calling PFOA “likely carcinogenic.”
But it wasn't until 2014 that the chemical was detected in the water supply in Hoosick Falls after a number of residents started contracting a rare form of cancer and dying. When the city asked the state of New York to take water samples and study them, the state declined. The town of Hoosick Falls continued with testing anyway, and found high levels of PFOA in some wells, and decided to stop drawing public water supply from wells affected with over 400 parts per trillion (ppt) PFOA per EPA advice.
The state of New York continued to disregard the findings, even when citizens reported levels up to 18,000 ppt in their water. Even government officials in the town of Hoosick Falls continued to tell citizens the water was safe (against the recommendations of the EPA) and to not use a free bottled water program because the town's water filters are working
By December of 2015, the New York U.S. Representative Chris Gibson wrote the Health Commissioner asking for a cancer study, and in January of 2016, the town finally got a new water treatment system. In February, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation identified Saint-Gobain and Honeywell International as two parties responsible for the contamination.
On February 24th of this year, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of four residents of Hoosick Falls. The lawsuit claims they were exposed to the toxin and could suffer health damages, and that the value of their homes has fallen. In April, another Hoosick Falls man filed a class-action case that would require the contaminating companies to pay all medical fees for people exposed to PFOA.
This month, 63-year-old James Donavan filed a personal injury case against both Saint-Gobain and Honeywell International, alleging that his health has dramatically declined since being exposed to PFOA-contaminated water. He is seeking “no less than $2,500,000.”
The case comes within a week of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's extension on the statute of limitations for superfund sites like Hoosick Falls, allowing residents more time to file lawsuits.