DES Broadens Water Investigation After High Levels of PFOA Found in Three Wells

Mar 21, 2016

Public meetings will be held in Merrimack and Litchfield this week, where state environmental officials have been investigating chemical water contamination.

Results released by the Department of Environmental Services late last week showed high levels of the chemical perfluorooctanoic or PFOA, in three private wells.

A meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the James Mastricola Upper Elementary School in Merrimack. Another meeting will be held 7 p.m. Thursday at Litchfield Middle School. 

Jim Martin, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Services, joined Morning Edition for an update on the situation.

Can you explain more about the testing DES conducted and what you found?

We went out and sampled 12 wells. Four of those were Merrimack Village Water District wells; the rest of the wells were private drinking wells within a certain vicinity of the Saint-Gobain plastics plant in Merrimack. Some of those wells were across the river in Litchfield. We expedited the results of those wells to find out what was in the wells as soon as possible.

All of the wells tested had PFOA in the water. Several of the wells were above 100 parts per trillion. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a provisional health advisory for PFOA at 400 parts per trillion, which is sort of a short-term exposure; people drinking water at that level for a short period of weeks to months. There is no lifetime health advisory on drinking PFOA right now. Out of an abundance of caution, DES provided homeowners whose wells tested above the 100 parts per trillion with bottled water.

So you’re waiting to get some guidance from the EPA. In the meantime, what’s being done about what you found in Merrimack and Litchfield?

Once we got the test results back on Thursday, DES decided we were going go out and do further drinking water well sampling in Merrimack and Litchfield area. We had staff out on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday collecting further drinking water samples. When it’s all said and done, we’ll have over 100 private water well samples collected. We anticipate getting those results back within 10-12 days. That will help us to know what the extent of contamination of drinking well water in that area may be.

It is possible that blood tests could be made available to residents in Merrimack and Litchfield who may be concerned?

I don’t have any information on blood testing at the moment.

PFOA has been detected in the water supply at Hoosick Falls, New York, and in some wells in North Bennington, Vermont, also near Saint-Gobain plants.

Is the state exploring whether Saint-Gobain in at fault in any way?

We are working with Saint-Gobain on the situation.

Your office is saying the health effects of prolonged exposure to this chemical are not well understood, but in New York, health officials there say human studies have shown associations with increased PFOA levels in the blood and adverse health effects, including kidney and testicular cancer.

Some are saying DES is downplaying the health effects. It seems like there’s some conflicting information, so what do we really know about the health risks of this chemical and how do you decide when it’s time for people to use bottled water?

There are some studies out there that indicate those health risks that you mentioned. There are also other studies out there that show an inconsistent relationship to those health risks. The Department of Environmental Services, out of an abundance of caution, decided to provide bottled water to the two families whose wells tested above 100 parts per trillion. That standard that we decided on was based on some peer reviewed scientific studies from neighboring states, the state of Maine.

We are advising people that if they are concerned, they can use charcoal filtration on their water. We will have more information on systems that they can use posted on our website. People can also use bottled water until they get more information from us at the meetings on Wednesday and Thursday night.