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EDITORIAL: Old threat lurks

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WHO CAN KEEP the letters straight when what was a miraculous chemical invention, good for all sorts of uses, turns out to threaten our health, our lives and the value of our homes as well? Consider PFASs, a family of industrial chemicals found in numerous household products. The full name for this family of man-made concoctions is perfluoroalkyl substances. Members of that family escaped from a factory in the Village of Hoosick Falls a few years ago and found their way into the local water system. The list of health problems associated with exposure to this family of stuff is not comforting.

The PFASs exposure story echoes one that occupied public attention 30 years ago when the threat was from a different family called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. General Electric used huge amounts of PCBs in places like the Village of Hudson Falls; the Monsanto company manufactured the PCBs that GE used. The PCBs that were not used were either stored or dumped in the Hudson River. By the early 1970s the state knew that fish caught in the river from Hudson Falls south to the Fort Edward Dam, a few miles above Saratoga Springs, were highly polluted. Something had to be done.

If anyone suggested a better “solution” for solving the polluted fish problem I have never seen it. The state removed the dam and the polluted fish headed downstream carrying PCBs with them, traveling as far as New York and the ocean depending on the species and the habitat.

But the human dam busters apparently had not reckoned with what would happen to the sediment—roughly 25 years of PCB-laced mud—that had accumulated behind the dam. It went downstream too, depositing PCB pollution as it drifted along, coating parts of the Mid-Hudson and Lower Hudson rivers, but not others. Polluted sediment remains there still.

GE dredged the upper river and there has been some talk of another dredging operation but no action. There has been no such cleanup in recent years or even a discussion of testing along the shoreline of Columbia County. There should be.

How do you bring enough public pressure to convince lawmakers or health officials or wealthy donors to assist in efforts to reach consensus in ways that are fair and effective? The GE dredging project is a case in point. It took community support plus local, federal and state backing before GE decided that compromise would be less financially painful than confrontation.

This editorial was sparked by a story in last Sunday’s edition of the Times Union, “Noted PCB researcher on ‘alternate Assignment,’” by Brendan J. Lyons. The subject was David O. Carpenter, head of the University at Albany Institute for Health and the Environment. For decades Dr. Carpenter has been the go-to expert for medical and health information involving PCBs. He testifies on behalf of plaintiffs, explaining health effects caused by PCB exposure.

In addition to his research and his work with graduate students at the institute, he has donated his expert witness fees in toxic chemical pollution cases to help fund his students’ costs.

Recently a law firm representing a company that once made PCBs has apparently sought to prevent Dr. Carpenter from testifying as an expert witness. Companies that knowingly exposed the public to toxic substances deserve to have their day in court, but the public has the right to hear Dr. Carpenter explain the human toll that takes.

Now, as the state budget is being finalized, is the time to insist that the budget include funds for the Mid-Hudson and Lower Hudson River PCBs testing. Tell the state Assembly and Senate; tell Gov. Hochul too.

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