They’re called emerging contaminants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning they have a “perceived, potential, or real threat to human health or the environment.”
And across the country, communities are scrambling to try to get a handle on them, including here in the Monadnock Region.
In New Hampshire, contamination from perfluorinated chemicals, specifically perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), has been associated with industrial sources found in Merrimack and Litchfield, among other communities. The contaminants have also been recorded in high levels in well water at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, and at a landfill straddling two of five towns that are part of a known cancer cluster on the Seacoast.
In November 2016, the N.H. Department of Environmental Services issued a letter asking agencies across the state to include testing for perfluorinated chemicals in groundwater sampling at active hazardous waste sites, sites with a history of industrial processes that may have used perfluorinated chemicals, landfills and fire training areas, among others.
The state requested the sampling be completed by the end of 2018.
Perfluorinated chemicals, also called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, make up a large group of synthetic compounds that are resistant to heat, oil, strains, grease and water. They’ve been used for decades in industrial and consumer products. However, their health and environmental effects remain largely unknown.
The problem of contamination from PFOAs and PFOSs is not limited to the Seacoast, and people across the state should be concerned about it, Rye resident Mindi Messmer said during a presentation at Keene State College last month.
Messmer, an environmental scientist turned advocate, is now in her first term as a Democratic state representative. She is running to represent the 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
She was part of a group of Rye residents that contacted state health officials in 2014 to push for a study of the area after learning about the town’s many cases of childhood cancer. By early 2016, state health officials had concluded that Rye — along with Greenland, New Castle, North Hampton and Portsmouth — were part of a cluster of cases of rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. State officials also found a second cluster of children with another rare form of pediatric cancer, pleuropulmonary blastoma.
Messmer is a member of a commission formed by the N.H. Legislature last year to investigate the Seacoast cancer cluster and its potential causes. The commission has focused in on the Coakley Landfill, a Superfund site, as a likely cause. However, the commission members note there could be other sources, including other area landfills.
During her presentation at Keene State, Messmer spoke about her work fighting for environmental justice in the state, her efforts to continue to push state and federal officials to study the health effects caused by contamination from perfluorinated chemicals, and to execute plans to address the contamination. That includes lowering the level of PFOAs and PFOSs considered safe in drinking water to below 70 parts per trillion, which is the state and federal limit.
She has worked on passing legislation to do just that, as well as address environmental and health concerns connected with other chemicals. However, it has been difficult, and at times unsuccessful, she said.
There are 40 classes of perfluorinated chemicals, and about 25 percent remain unidentified, she told about 100 people at the college’s Alumni Center.
They also break down slowly, and can remain in the human body for a long time, she said.
While there is still a lot of research to be done related to the health effects of exposure to perfluorinated chemicals, especially over the long term, an ambitious 2005 study provided some information, she said.
The study, called the C8 Health Project, included a sample size of 69,000 people who had been exposed to perfluorinated chemicals, specifically PFOA contamination, through drinking water while living in the mid-Ohio River Valley.
Following the study, a C8 Science Panel was formed to continue research. It found probable cause that health problems linked to the contamination included testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol, Messmer said.
When people think about environmental contamination, they think about sites such as the Love Canal in New York, she said.
The site, which was an abandoned, partially-dug canal, became a dumping site for a chemical and plastics company from 1942 to 1953, according to the EPA. The landfill was covered and leased to the Niagara Falls Board of Education. The land near the landfill was then developed to include an elementary school and houses, according to the EPA.
Local residents began noticing foul odors and chemical residues in the area in the 1970s, and there was also increased rates of cancer and other health problems, the EPA said. Hundreds of families were evacuated from their homes. The site was the first in the U.S. to gain Superfund classification, resulting in years of cleanup.
“Something like that would never happen in New Hampshire, yet it’s happening,” Messmer said.
In Keene, the old city landfill at 560 Main St. is a hazardous waste site, Assistant Public Works Director Donna Hanscom said.
According to an environmental assessment of the property performed in 1988, the site is east of Route 12 and west of Route 101 at the back of the city’s public work’s yard. It’s also adjacent to the Branch River.
It’s not known when the site was first used to dispose of solid and liquid wastes, but from the early 1900s to the mid-1950s, the property was mostly used as an open-burning dump, the report said. An incinerator was built there in the 1920s, and by the mid-1950s dumping at the site had ceased, according to the assessment.
There are a variety of different chemicals in the ground, including some chlorinated volatile compounds and oil, Hanscom said. City staff monitor the site, and there are booms set up to catch chemicals seeping into the river, she said.
In May 2017, the site tested positive for perfluorinated chemicals, ranging from less than 4.1 parts per trillion to 227 parts per trillion, according to the landfill’s annual groundwater monitoring report.
The readings came from four of 36 testing sites on the property, Hanscom said.
Eight of the nine types of perfluorinated chemicals tested for at the landfill, including PFOAs and PFOSs, registered at levels below 10 parts per trillion.
However, a ninth compound, perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), tested at levels ranging from 80.9 parts per trillion to 227 parts per trillion, according to the report.
The state’s health advisory for PFOAs and PFOSs is 70 parts per trillion, but officials have yet to establish advisories for the other seven chemicals included in the testing.
James P. Martin, spokesman of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, said agency staff have requested testing include other perfluorinated chemicals in addition to PFOAs and PFOSs in case more ambient groundwater quality standards are established. One discussion that is taking place among officials in New Hampshire and regionally is setting health advisories for two other perfluorinated chemicals, he said.
“It’s important to understand that for DES these are emerging contaminates. We’re constantly staying in touch with what is happening in other states and on the federal level,” he said.
In regards to the discovery of perfluorinated chemicals at the old landfill in Keene, Hanscom said Department of Environmental Services officials have asked the city to test for the chemicals again in May 2018, and then they’ll go from there.
Meanwhile, the city’s landfill on Old Summit Road, which shares space with the transfer station and recycling center, is scheduled to be tested for perfluorinated chemicals in November, Assistant Public Works Director Duncan Watson said.
Given the prevalence of perfluorinated chemicals in landfills across the state, he won’t be surprised if PFOAs and PFOSs are detected at some level in Keene’s landfill, he said.
The landfill, while capped, is unlined, meaning there is no protective barrier to prevent chemicals from seeping into soil and groundwater.
According to the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, there are approximately 300 closed landfills in the state, and only eight are lined. None of those are in the 31 towns that make up The Sentinel’s coverage area, according to the environmental agency’s database.
Other Monadnock Region communities either have yet to test their landfills for perfluorinated chemicals, or have tested them and had hits above and below the state limit.
Towns with positive tests include Hancock, Jaffrey, Marlow and Westmoreland, according to the Department of Environmental Services database.
Watson said he isn’t aware of industrial processes in the Keene area that have used PFOAs or PFOSs, but that doesn’t mean the contamination from those chemicals isn’t out there.
“I’m not sounding any alarm bells at this point,” he said. “But almost every town had a dump where people threw stuff.”