By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
MERRIMACK – The Department of Health and Human Services’ press release Friday saying higher than expected cases of kidney and renal cancers were detected in Merrimack didn’t surprise those who want Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics closed because of a notice of deficiency it received from the state.
The department released the new analysis during a meeting Friday of the Commission on the Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Perfluorinated Chemicals, a legislative commission formed in 2019 to study PFAS contamination in the town of Merrimack and surrounding communities.
Rep. Rosemarie Rung, D-Merrimack, who was at the commission meeting, said the report “is alarming but not a surprise. We have been subjected to PFAS contaminated water for years due to Saint Gobain’s operations. To think that this has no impact on human health is naïve.”
“I hope this study sparks an immediate analysis of not only those people in Merrimack, but residents of Bedford, Litchfield and Londonderry, who have equally suffered from Saint Gobain’s contamination,” Rung said.
Another advocate, former state representative Mindi Messmer who is an environmental scientist, said the presentation was a step in the right direction after years of prodding.
Messmer said she and others continue to think the state’s analysis underestimates the risk posed to southern New Hampshire citizens for prostate, thyroid and other cancers “caused by decades of exposure to toxic pollution caused by Saint-Gobain’s emissions.
“We hope that in the coming months, the state will work diligently to adequately respond to continued requests from all communities exposed to contaminated air and drinking water caused by Saint-Gobain and other PFAS industrial emissions,” Messmer said.
Messmer and Rung were among a group that asked the state in late November to close Saint-Gobain because of a notice of deficiency it received from the state Department of Environmental Services.
“This (notice) stated that Saint-Gobain installed an illegal bypass of their pollution in yet another attempt to continue to make money while poisoning the people of Merrimack,” Messmer said at a recent press conference.
“It’s equivalent to you installing a separate, secret tailpipe to avoid emissions laws so it will pass inspection,” Messmer added. “DES should immediately shut down operations at the plant and fine them heavily.”
The state’s analysis found a higher than expected number of people with kidney and renal cancers in Merrimack between 2009 and 2018 than would typically be observed in a town of similar size in New Hampshire.
“There is not sufficient information available at this time to draw any conclusions about the individuals who have kidney and renal cancer in Merrimack and any specific exposure,” the department’s release said. “According to the American Cancer Society, an excess number of cases of a particular cancer that looks significant based on statistics does not necessarily mean that the cancers are caused by something unique to that area.”
The analysis provides an update to the state’s report on cancer in Merrimack that was published in 2018 in response to community concerns about cancer following detection of PFOA in the Merrimack Village District Public Water System.
“The data released today is one step in what will be a multi-step process with the residents of Merrimack and the NH Department of Environmental Services to better understand cancers in their community. The next steps include gathering additional information from members of the community and subject matter experts and convening a meeting with Merrimack. Meeting details will be announced in the coming weeks,” the release said.
“While this preliminary data does not necessarily indicate the presence of a cancer cluster, any data that points to the possibility of increased illness in our communities warrants closer examination,” said Division of Public Health Director Patricia Tilley. “We will be seeking input from individuals affected by these cancers, community leaders and members of the Commission on the Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Perfluorinated Chemicals as we continue with our investigation. We are committed to working with the residents of Merrimack and other local and state agencies and officials as we learn more.”
Saint-Gobain didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The state said people with questions can contact the Cancer Concern Review Team with specific questions or concerns by email at DHHSCCRT@dhhs.nh.gov or by phone at (603) 271-4959.