By ANI FREEDMAN, InDepthNH.org
On May 19, 2022, at 10 a.m., Wendy Thomas received a phone call from her doctor. “Are you sitting down?” Thomas recalls her doctor asking. Her heart sank. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Thomas, a Democrat who currently represents Merrimack in the state House and is the former executive director of the New Hampshire Challenge, a nonprofit organization to aid disabled individuals, has lived in Merrimack for 32 years with her husband and raised all six of her children there.
Throughout their childhoods, Thomas, 64, cared for their constant health problems; four of them were in and out of the hospital until age five with respiratory problems. They have dealt with their own health problems since. Thomas thought she and her husband had just gotten the short end of the stick with their genes.
“Then in 2016, I went to a meeting for Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water,” Thomas said in an interview. “We live three miles from Saint-Gobain and we have a private well. I had our well tested and it was so contaminated we had to shut it down immediately.”
She started to question if all the health issues she’d witnessed in not just her own home, but those of her neighbors, were because of PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” which Saint-Gobain has been known for polluting. Since 2019, Thomas’ husband has faced his own health problems.
Thomas did her best to keep her children healthy too. She fed them well, cooking all the food from scratch. She told them to drink water, it’s good for you. She thought she was doing the right thing.
“My kids have been drinking this stuff their whole lives,” Thomas said. “It turns out, I was poisoning them all along.”
Not just her children, but herself. Thomas couldn’t confirm that her breast cancer or her children’s health problems were caused by the PFAS chemicals polluted by Saint-Gobain, even though her doctors confirmed her cancer was likely from environmental toxins after gene testing confirmed no hereditary risk. Then she got her blood tested.
“It turns out I’ve got twelve chemicals in my body that are over the toxic limit that’s allowed for humans,” Thomas said. “The chemicals that are specifically linked to breast cancer. I have 38 times the toxic level.”
There is no diagnostic code for environmental toxins, Thomas said. But she still thinks the proof is in her blood, that PFAS chemicals are the culprit.
PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are synthetic chemicals used in manufacturing processes. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which recently announced the closure of its Merrimack facility, has come under fire for polluting groundwater, soil, and surface water with PFAS chemicals since the discovery of the highly toxic chemical PFOA in Merrimack public well water. The company took over the Merrimack facility in 2002, according to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. After discovering the pollution in 2016, Saint-Gobain entered an agreement with the DES to remediate the pollution coming from their facility and provide bottled water for a designated area of contamination.
“I had our well tested in 2021,” Thomas said, “and the numbers were even higher than in 2016. It hadn’t stopped. They continued.”
PFAS chemicals bioaccumulate in the environment and in the bodies of humans and animals and degrade very slowly over time—meaning the more someone is exposed to those chemicals, in drinking water for instance, the more the concentration of those chemicals build in their bodies.
It’s difficult to directly link PFAS to health impacts at this point, but scientists have been building the case for how it impacts people the more it is studied. Mindi Messmer, environmental scientist, health researcher, and former state Representative of Rye and New Castle, has been studying cancer risk and PFAS exposure in New Hampshire for years. In 2021, Messmer co-authored a study looking at cancer risk in the PFAS-exposed community of Merrimack, finding that residents were vulnerable to multiple health risks, including: elevated cholesterol, prostate, testicular, kidney, and breast cancer, decreased fertility, pregnancy-induced hypertension, suppressed immune system (decreasing vaccine efficacy), and hormone system disruption, among others.
When compared with three towns in Maine and one in Vermont with similar demographics to Merrimack, Messmer found that risks for kidney, colon, prostate, renal, and thyroid cancers were higher among Merrimack residents.
“It’s hard to say that this really caused that,” Messmer said over the phone, “but all of those things contribute to both building a case at the state and the federal level for increased regulation of these chemicals.”
Messmer said she and her colleagues had been hearing from the Merrimack community that they felt their cancer rates were too high. The study became a means to see if those concerns were valid. “We found that they were,” Messmer said. “I’m pretty confident that those rates are elevated due to, in part, exposure to PFAS.”
Dr. Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said, “All PFAS are going to last in the environment essentially forever.”
While Birnbaum thinks PFAS can be useful for production, she doesn’t think they are necessary. “The majority of their use is not essential,” Birnbaum said. “They’re easy, relatively cheap, and they make the companies billions each year.”
While PFAS are regulated by federal and state governments, scientists like Messmer and Birnbaum believe much more needs to be done.
“We only regulate four of the more than 14,000 PFAS chemicals that we know about in existence,” Messmer said. “And there are and have been historically many PFAS chemicals coming out of that plant.”
Saint-Gobain announced its plans to close last week, saying that the facility will likely not be closed until 2024 as the company winds down operations.
On August 22, 2022, Thomas had her breasts removed during a bilateral mastectomy procedure.
“That’s the price of living in this town,” Thomas said. “We have to amputate parts of our bodies in order to live here because of what that company has done to our town.”
Even after receiving the results of her blood test, Thomas doesn’t think she has proof that everything she and her family have endured can be proven to be caused by PFAS pollution. She joined an ongoing class action suit of Merrimack residents with private wells against Saint-Gobain, represented by attorney Kevin Hannon. Thomas has little faith in the suit, however, knowing it will take years before she and the other plaintiffs see a resolution.
Thomas’ life forever changed after her diagnosis. She was struck with her own mortality and immense fear—for what may happen to herself, to her children, to her husband, to the people she represents.
“When you have cancer, you don’t just have cancer,” Thomas said. “It sort of bleeds over into all aspects of your life.”
She has reached a point where she accepts her diagnosis, even her unknown fate at the hands of cancer and blood flooded with chemicals. After two surgeries, Thomas’ doctors said that all of the cancer is removed, but they’re continuing to monitor her in case it returns. Thomas thinks it will. But that does not mean she’s giving up as she continues her work as a state representative.
“I will probably die of cancer from PFAS,” Thomas said. “But I’m not dying today, I most likely won’t die tomorrow, and until that day comes, I’ve got life to live and work to do.”
Following Saint-Gobain’s announcement of closing the Merrimack facility, Thomas is planning to continue fighting for more robust regulation of PFAS chemicals and holding Saint-Gobain to account, all with her children in the back of her mind.
“Saint-Gobain has never acknowledged the pain and the disruption to the town that they’ve caused,” Thomas said.
Saint-Gobain has repeatedly denied requests for interviews and will only respond to questions via email. A company spokesman responded to questions about the closing of the Merrimack plant, but not to those about the health of the community. Regarding the decision to close, Saint-Gobain had the following to say:
“The decision was reached after careful consideration and evaluation of our company’s broader business strategy. Saint-Gobain North America continues to work to optimize our business strategy to meet our Grow and Impact goals and our core business objectives. For example, this month it was announced that SGNA had divested its fence, railing and decking business.”
When asked if the company would file for bankruptcy, the spokesman responded:
“Saint-Gobain has experienced strong growth throughout 2022 and 2023 and remains focused on continuing that trajectory. We will continue working closely with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services on the on-going environmental investigation and remediation effort.”
Questions regarding the health of the community and the impacts of Saint-Gobain’s pollution have not yet been answered.