Argelia Morales Alvarez learned about the contamination shortly after becoming pregnant. All photos by Shantal Riley
Charlie Parker stood at the edge of the pond, his fishing rod in hand. He cast his lure into the air, landing it about 30 feet away in the dark water. His fishing rod made a clicking sound as he reeled the lure back to shore. If he catches a fish, he’ll have to throw it back, he said.“I don’t eat them anymore,” Parker said. “They’re contaminated.”Parker, a retired Army vet, has fished the waters around Newburgh for 20 years. The city sits on the western banks of the Hudson River, about 70 miles north of New York City.
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
In 2016, the state announced a “catch and release rule” for the pond and six other nearby water bodies, which were contaminated with a chemical no one could pronounce: perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS. The fish were no longer safe to eat.That year, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation traced the contamination back to Stewart Air National Guard Base, where PFOS-laden fire foam had been used in large fires and firefighting drills since the 1980s.The chemical had slowly leached into the ground at the base. It flowed into stormwater that was caught in a retention pond that emptied into a stream, which flowed into the local watershed, the pond where Parker fished, and Washington Lake, which held drinking water for 30,000 people.
PFOS is one of thousands of man-made chemicals known as PFAS, nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment.PFAS poured out of the retention pond and into tributaries that lead to the Hudson River, a source of drinking water for seven riverside communities. U.S. Department of Defense officials did not respond to a request for an interview.An Air Force official, however, did. “We have to follow the CERCLA process,” said Sara Pastorello, public affairs superintendent of the 105th Air Wing of the Air National Guard. She was talking about the federal law under which hazardous waste sites are cleaned up. “It takes years,” she said.
A city on the edge
Newburgh residents had been drinking PFAS-contaminated water for decades following the military’s adoption of AFFF—short for aqueous film-forming foam, a fire foam used to fight fuel fires.One of them was Peter Smith. In the spring of 2018, the 75-year-old went to his doctor for what he thought was a sinus infection. He had his blood drawn during the visit. “Twenty minutes later, the doctor said, ‘Your kidneys have failed,’” recalled Smith. He was rushed from the doctor’s office straight to the hospital.
Blood flowed in and out of his left arm through thick tubes and into a dialysis machine on a recent Wednesday. He undergoes dialysis three times a week. He’s on a strict, renal diet; he avoids dairy, salt, and citrus fruit. He takes a “fistful of pills” twice a day, he said.“I used to camp and hike,” said Smith, a member of a local environmental group. “Now, I can’t be away for more than two days from a dialysis machine.”Numerous studies have linked kidney disease to PFAS exposure. Still, Smith says he can’t be certain whether his kidney disease is related. “You get to a certain age and your body starts to give out,” he said, “Shit happens.”And yet, he said, “My gut feeling is that it was caused by the water.”Roxy Royal, 89, is another longtime Newburgh resident. “You think about what you’ve been drinking and what it’s done to your body,” said Royal, who manages kidney and thyroid problems. “We’ve been drinking it so long, whatever it’s done to our bodies, it’s too late.”
Royal sipped coffee in the kitchen at Mount Carmel Church of Christ on a snowy Sunday. Church singers sang full-throated gospel songs during a service later that morning. Congregants stood to their feet to offer words of praise, their hands raised above their heads in deep worship.
The church sits just outside of the city, which has seen its share of strife: crime, gang wars, unemployment, and budget woes, among them. The population is 50 percent Latino and 30 percent Black. Roughly a third of residents live at or below the federal poverty line.Like Flint, Michigan, Newburgh is an old industrial city with water issues that have dragged on for years. In the late 1990s and 2000s, cases of children with high blood lead levels surged. In 2005, Newburgh reported 103 new cases of children with blood lead levels at or more than 10 micrograms per deciliter—twice the current action level.
It was the highest number of cases in the state that year. A concerted effort between local government and non-profits eventually brought those levels down. (There is no safe blood lead level in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect attention, IQ, and academic performance.)In recent years, the city has undergone changes. Unable to afford skyrocketing costs in New York City, a slew of artists and entrepreneurs moved in to open restaurants and art studios. But the water contamination was bad for business, said Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey.
“The water contamination has definitely affected our city economy in a negative way,” Harvey said, citing spooked investors, an exodus of families, and lost sales of raw water to neighboring towns.More important than the economic fallout is the potential impact on the health of the city’s citizens, he said. “For them to drag their feet and take their time when humans are dealing with this contamination in their bodies day after day is a tragedy,” the mayor told me early last year. “It‘s a human atrocity.”
In 2016, the state Department of Health spearheaded a bio-monitoring program to test the blood of Newburgh residents for PFOS. What they found was that city residents had elevated levels of the chemical in their blood—roughly five times the national average.In fact, PFAS are so persistent, most Americans have at least small amounts in their blood.These chemicals are bioaccumulative, with a half-life of three to nine years in the human body. The longer the exposure, the more the chemicals build up in the body.After the contamination surfaced in 2016, the city switched its water source to the Catskill Aqueduct, a major water source for New York City. Newburgh has had clean drinking clean water since.“The main environmental exposure has stopped,” said toxicologist Dr. Gary Ginsberg, director of the Center for Environmental Health for the state Department of Health. Aside from drinking water, people can be exposed to PFAS through food and food packaging, he added.
Forever chemicals in the body
PFAS are highly valued for their resistance to heat, oil, and water. They’re found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and sofas, waterproof clothes and rain gear, food packaging, pizza boxes, paper to-go containers, and even dental floss. Unlike other chemicals, they’re not broken down by sunlight and other forms of weathering.Exposure to PFOS specifically has been linked to high cholesterol, immune system problems, and hormone disruption, among other conditions. “The most consistent findings are the effects on the immune system,” Ginsberg said, including a suppressed response to vaccines.Studies also show effects on liver function, he said. Human studies on another PFAS chemical, called PFOA, show probable links to testicular and kidney cancer, among other diseases. “We don’t think of them as strong carcinogens, but we don’t rule out that they can contribute to the risk for these diseases,” said Ginsberg.
The water has been a source of worry for 32-year-old Argelia Morales Alvarez, who became pregnant shortly after learning about the contamination three years ago. “What does it mean to you in the future, for you, for your baby?” she asked. “None of that was ever made clear.”The CDC states PFAS may “affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children.” Recent studies have shown PFAS can pass through the placenta and into a developing fetus. More studies show links between PFAS exposure, low birth weight, and reproductive problems in men and women.
Both the CDC and the state DOH are conducting studies to look at local health outcomes following Newburgh’s water crisis. The state is focused specifically on tracking cases of cancer.“To think that something you did unknowingly, by consuming public water, might negatively impact them for the rest of their life, that's a huge fear,” said Morales Alvarez, speaking of her daughter. The little girl, now 2, appeared to be the picture of health as she climbed atop a rocking horse to watch cartoons while her mother washed dishes.Morales Alvarez is also healthy. But when she had her blood tested in 2017, the results showed a PFOS blood level that was four times higher than the general U.S. population’s.But PFAS blood levels alone cannot predict an individual’s health. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry explains, “Having PFAS in your blood does not necessarily mean that you will become ill from PFAS.”Still, Morales Alvarez resents being exposed to any health risk. “I can't control where I grew up,” the young mother said. “It’s unfair.”She remembered watching news about the Flint water crisis and comparing it to Newburgh’s. “I think that the most vulnerable populations are the ones that are most affected by this,” she said.The mayor put it another way. “If you look at the Black and Hispanic demographic in our city, we're a super majority here, just like you have the super majority of people of color in Flint,” he said. “One would wonder if these things are happening coincidentally. Everyone has their opinion.”
He pointed to the city’s lawsuit filed in August 2018 against the U.S. Air Force, the DoD, the state, which owns the property on which the air base sits, and several makers of AFFF fire foam. The city is seeking punitive and compensatory damages, to be determined at trial, which is at least a year away.“That's the only reason why people are starting to make movements, because we're taking it to the courts,” he said.Communities of color are often burdened with industrial pollution, said Jacqueline Patterson, senior director of the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice program. “Multiple studies have found that toxic facilities are disproportionately located in communities of color and that communities of color consistently have more contaminated air, water, and even soil contamination,” she said.The health impacts can be devastating, she said, highlighting high rates of asthma among American Black children. Yet, much of the data centers on air pollution, said Patterson. “There isn't as much in the way of monitoring as it relates to water pollution,” she said.
In December, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a temporary filter at the pond long thought to be the chief source of PFAS entering the watershed. The city had been waiting for the filter for almost four years.Newburgh Clean Water Project, an environmental group on a mission to protect the city’s drinking water, describes the filter as a “promising first step.” But the filter lowers the levels of PFAS coming from the base to less than the EPA’s non-binding health advisory level, said the group’s co-founder Ophra Wolf. That level is much less protective than a drinking-water standard being weighed by the state, she said.
A national issue
“No one knows what the long-term plan is,” she said, referring to future plans for cleanup at the base, declared a hazardous waste site under the state’s Superfund Program in 2016. “But we will absolutely demand the long-term plan include remediation of the groundwater.”So far, Wolf thinks the DoD has acted in its own self-interest. “The filter is mainly mitigating the DoD’s liability,” she said. “Up until that filter was installed, they were continuing to discharge large amounts of PFAS into the watershed.”The cleanup is currently in the “site inspection phase,” which includes measuring PFAS levels at the base, Pastorello said. “There are no current regulatory standards regarding groundwater,” she noted. “The EPA has to establish that standard. If the EPA comes out with groundwater standards, everyone will have to comply.”As of 2018, the DoD had identified more than 400 military sites with at least one area of PFAS contamination; the agency has found more than 500 public and private water systems with PFAS above the EPA’s health advisory level.States including New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont have gone ahead and set their own limits on PFAS in drinking water. New York listed PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances in 2017. The EPA says it has started the process for doing the same, though no deadline has been set.
But federal regulation of PFAS may be on the horizon. In January, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the PFAS Action Act, a bill that, if approved by the Senate, would require the EPA to set a national drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals. The Trump administration has already threatened to veto the bill, citing potential costs to local, state, and federal agencies.Back in Newburgh, Charlie Parker says he’s not sure if he’ll have his blood tested for PFAS. “No news is good news,” he said. When asked if he was afraid to have his blood tested, he was blunt. “I’m a lot of afraid, yes ma’am,” Parker said.Shantal Riley is a Newmark J-School fellow at Frontline/PBS. She began covering PFAS water pollution as a reporter at the Mid Hudson Times in Newburgh, New York, in 2016. Follow her on Twitter.Have a story for Tipping Point? Email TippingPoint@vice.com