Energy & Environment

A new course at Bennington College will probe water contamination issue

Editor’s note: This article is by Edward Damon, of the Bennington Banner, in which it was first published March 11, 2016.

NORTH BENNINGTON — A new course at Bennington College aims to complement the government’s response to a potentially harmful chemical found in water supplies in Vermont and New York.

The college was recently awarded nearly $90,000 from a National Science Foundation Rapid Response grant to support the new six-week course, which will be offered this spring and again in the fall.

Students will work across academic disciplines to conduct original research on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination near North Bennington and in Hoosick Falls, New York.

It’s an opportunity for important research into what could be a nationwide issue, according to David Bond, the associate director for the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at the college.

“We think Bennington College can lead the way in training students and citizens to navigate the discovery of PFOA in their community, what they can ask their state legislators and what they can do to protect their water resources,” Bond told the Banner Thursday.

The class, “Understanding PFOA in Our Water,” will have 20 students as well as spots for faculty and staff, local leaders and public school teachers. It will be co-taught by Bond, the grant’s principal investigator, Tim Schroeder, professor of geology, and Janet Foley, professor of chemistry.

Water in Hoosick Falls and North Bennington were found to have high levels of PFOA, a man-made chemical formerly used make the nonstick coating Teflon for decades. It’s been linked to cause cancer and many scientists are calling for a lower limit allowed in drinking water.

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Bond said the course grew out of discussions around how to incorporate the issue into existing curriculum, as a number of staff and faculty live in Hoosick Falls.

PFOA has since been found in private wells in North Bennington. But the village and college’s public water systems are not affected.

PFOA, or C8, is persistent in the environment. It’s water-soluble, is stable in water for nearly a century and is readily absorbed by the body when consumed.

“All of us, like many animals, have certain amounts of PFOA in our blood,” Foley said. “It’s been such a widely produced chemical, you can’t escape it, even if you’re a polar bear in the Arctic.”

More needs to be learned about how the chemical moves through the environment, Foley said, such as through groundwater and soil.

The course will cover disciplines of environmental organic chemistry and toxicology, contaminant hydrogeology, and environmental policy.

Research teams will analyze the origins of PFOA, its pathways into the environment and how far it has spread through the soil and groundwater.

The NSF grant will support the testing of 200 water samples to a certified laboratory that can measure PFOA in parts per trillion.

The results will help Schroeder build a database to identify PFOA hot spots, locations for long-term monitoring and future research opportunities.

Coursework will include field research through collecting water samples, interpreting laboratory data, and using special techniques and analysis to characterize a groundwater plume. But another component will take students out of the classroom and into the community. They’ll be expected to present information to Hoosick Falls residents and develop curricular materials for local public schools.

The co-instructors said the course is meant to complement — not duplicate — efforts by officials in New York and Vermont. They said they are working with them to determine the best way to carry out research.

Many questions remain over PFOA and residents have questioned if PFOA can makes its way into garden vegetables or even maple syrup.

“A key part of the course we are offering and the research we will conduct centers on equipping students with the scientific literacy now required to be effective citizens when a disaster like this strikes,” Schroeder said.

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