This past week, Hoosick Falls Central School middle-school student Gwenyth Young went to Washington, D.C., along with her mother, Emily Marpe, to protest the possible appointment of former chemical consultant Michael Dourson as head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. The two flew down to Washington to speak with several U.S. senators and representatives on behalf of the Environmental Working Group and Environmental Defense Fund.
Two years ago, Young and her family were not looking to become environmental advocates. But, when the well at their Petersburgh, N.Y., home tested high for perfluorooctanoic acid
(PFOA) and Young received the dubious distinction of having the highest PFOA blood level of any local child, Marpe knew she had to do something. Since then, she and her daughter have informed their neighbors, sat on panels, held meetings, and spoken out about the dangers of high PFOA levels in the water in Petersburgh and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
“It all started in Petersburgh when we were going to pick up water from the town after the news of the PFOA contamination came out,” said Marpe. “One of the local news stations was there and asked me if I would agree to an interview. The rest is history.”
Young states she is doing this for one primary reason: “I’m speaking out for the safety of my family and other families. This is important to me because I don’t want children to continue to drink this water and possibly get cancer or other diseases from it,” she said.
“Here are children drinking water like they are supposed to, yet the thing they’re drinking for better health is a danger to them. It’s already in my blood and in the blood of many others.”
“I’ve never told her that she needs to do this or forced my children in any way to speak out,” stated Marpe. (Marpe’s 16-year-old son prefers not to speak publicly about his experiences.)
“As soon as I got our well results, I spent many sleepless nights researching PFOA and its effects, which only made me more and more worried. I knew I had no choice but to share the information I found. It was Gwen’s choice to join me in talking about it.”
“In many ways, I just want my mom back to her old self,” said Young. “I remember watching her open the results of our well test and later of our blood tests. She couldn’t hold back the tears and just sat there crying.”
The family recently moved to Hoosick Falls from Petersburgh, leaving their dream house because of the water contamination.
“I know it’s taken time away from my kids,” said Marpe. “In more ways than one, this has rocked their world. I know it’s affected them. I try to keep them out of it, but it’s also been a good lesson for Gwen to see that she can be, and sometimes needs to be, her own advocate.”
The trip to Washington, D.C. was the first for both mother and daughter. The two met with several U.S. government officials and their staff members, including Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who both listened and were supportive.
“Senator Gillibrand mentioned us in her testimony during Dourson’s hearing,” said Young. “I think she really gets how awful it is when you don’t feel safe to drink the water in your home.”
When asked how she likes having the role of an advocate, Young was honest and introspective. “I get really nervous before I talk, but then I just do it,” she said. “People have been supportive, especially my mom. Many are starting to notice what we’re doing and have told me, ‘Thank you.’ That and the reassurances of others around me have been important. My former bus driver gave me a stuffed animal and told me ‘everything will be okay.’ Just hearing that has made the tough times easier for me.”
Young added, “I do it because it needs to be done. I’ve learned that if there is something you believe in, go for it.”