We spoke with people in communities affected by PFAS contamination around the country as part of our research for the Say Never to Forever Chemicals campaign targeting corporate giant 3M, We were inspired by these fierce activists and are pleased to share their stories with you. Loreen Hackett, who lives in Hoosick Falls, New York, a community with heavy PFAS contamination, experienced a personal breast cancer diagnosis and has become an outspoken activist pushing for more regulation of these dangerous chemicals.

By Loreen Hackett           

Being told you are positive for breast cancer is devastating and dreadful enough. Discovering it’s not a genetic trait in your family is a bit bewildering (although I’ve since read that 90 percent of breast cancer cases are not hereditary).  After my diagnosis in 2010, I curiously researched further causes. It was an utterly rude awakening to find out that my breast cancer may be associated with exposure to environmental toxins and pollutants. Even more horrifying, those toxins had contaminated the drinking water that was coming out of the tap in my home. And it very well may be in your drinking water, too.

It was only after I was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer that I learned that the water in Hoosick Falls, where I live, was highly contaminated with toxic chemicals called PFAS. It turns out that PFAS have been linked to changes in the mammary glands, hormone and endocrine disruption, thyroid disease, and autoimmune suppression, to name but a few health effects (incidentally, I suffer from several of these other conditions as well).  PFAS comprise a large class of chemicals, and one specific type, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also referred to as C8, is found near industrial sites and military installations around the country. PFOA was first developed and sold seventy years ago by 3M (the company that makes every day products like Post-its and Scotch Tape). Plumes of the chemical can also spread for miles.

It turns out that PFAS may also increase the risk of breast cancer. Some studies suggest exposure to both PFOA and PFOS (a C8 sulfonate) enhance the effects of estradiol in human breast cancer cells, leading to greater growth and proliferation of the cells. Also, scientists are concerned that exposure to these chemicals, which alter mammary gland development, may increase the risk of breast cancer later in life. (Prior studies have already linked PFAS to other types of cancer.)

Toxic Cocktail

In 2014, a local citizen whose father died from kidney cancer, tested our local water supply (he paid for the tests with his own money, after local officials refused to test). It turned out our drinking water was absolutely loaded with this toxic cocktail, which we were unwittingly ingesting for years. It wasn’t until local officials were presented with the results that they forwarded them to the state for action. This was in August 2014, yet we weren’t informed to stop drinking the water until the EPA stepped in and issued a “do not drink” order at the end of December, 2015.

When I learned about the contamination, I dove head first into research mode, and have been reading everything I can find for over four years. Turns out, PFAS are in all kinds of products. And PFAS contamination is everywhere, in every state, affecting the drinking water of millions. PFAS chemicals are in virtually everyone at some level, having been produced and distributed worldwide since the 1950s. Despite at least 15 years of data, the EPA has not set any regulations for PFAS limits, they’ve only set a lifetime guidance limit of 70 ppt (parts per trillion), although some states have set much lower limits.

In terms of blood levels, the U.S. national average for PFOA is 2.08 ppt. My level came back at a staggering 266 ppt, placing me over the 95th percentile in the country. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down. In fact they build up, or bioaccumulate, in our blood, organs, and environment with every drop. My young grandchildren had some of the highest levels for kids recorded in our area, and with what I now know, I can’t begin to express my worry for their future health. This continues to cause many a sleepless night with each new study I read.

Astoundingly, there are close to 5,000 of these PFAS variations, and my state has tested us for only six. Even more exasperating, no one can yet tell us how these chemicals combined are affecting us. We know from ongoing research that all the PFAS that have been studied appear to have the same toxic effects, yet also remain unregulated. This is going to be an ongoing issue for years to come.

Public Health Crisis

If you haven’t heard about this PFAS public health crisis yet, I doubt you’ll have to wait long because it’s likely already happening somewhere in your state.  Check this interactive map created by the Environmental Working Group to find out more about PFAS contamination in your area.  And for an informative and jaw-dropping history of PFAS, follow The Intercept series by investigative journalist Sharon Lerner, who has uncovered so much about 3M and DuPont’s deception about these chemicals. [Note: Breast Cancer Action will be featuring Sharon Lerner in an upcoming podcast episode.]

Can I say for certain that being poisoned by these toxins caused my breast cancer? No more than someone can say their lung cancer was definitively caused by smoking. However, as with cigarettes and lung cancer, I believe the link is there, evidenced by the increasing number of studies being published all the time.

And that’s why I’ve been fighting tooth and nail to beg our government for clean drinking water as well as clean air (this nasty stuff is often airborne near industrial facilities that utilize it, as is the case in upstate NY, where I live) on both the state and federal levels. Who would ever have thought this particular fight would be necessary?! THIS IS OUR AIR AND OUR DRINKING WATER! Other “ordinary” and outraged citizens in contaminated communities have joined forces and created the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, and our advocacy continues to grow.

What You Can Do

PLEASE join us in pushing back against PFAS. Educate yourself about the harms of PFAS. Let your elected officials know that we all deserve access to safe drinking water.  And join me in calling on 3M’s executives to stop producing and selling PFAS.

As someone who has been exposed to high levels of PFOA and knows firsthand the devastation of a breast cancer diagnosis, I’m outraged that 3M is still using known cancer-causing toxins in consumer products, and I’m outraged about their pinkwashing. I’m telling 3M to say never to forever chemicals. I hope you’ll join me, too.

The Hoosick Falls, NY, PFOA contamination became national news on the heels of the Flint crisis, partly due to the high levels of drinking water contamination, but also because state officials kept the problem secret for nearly a year and a half. After learning that her family’s blood tests revealed some of the highest PFOA levels in her area, Loreen Hackett  started the #pfoaprojectny Twitter page. Loreen has testified for PFAS regulations in hearings in her state and before Congress; she continues to travel across the country to advocate for PFAS regulation. Follow Loreen @pfoaprojectNY to find out more. “If I can help one mom or one family, the years spent will have been well worth it,” she says.