Near Saint-Gobain, Sick Residents Wonder Who Is To Blame

Sep 9, 2016

Brendan DeKemper, outside his family's home in Merrimack, NH.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

In the last couple years, millions of people across the country have learned their drinking water contains high levels of the contaminants known as perfluorichemicals. These are used to make nonstick things like Teflon and pizza boxes.  And for those with illnesses that are linked to the contaminant, that knowledge can be helpful -- and frustrating.

Sitting across from me on her porch, Marianne Sylvester’s face looks healthy. But, she says, her face looked different before she got Graves Disease, about 10 years ago. At the time, it all seemed like really bad luck. One side effect of Graves Disease, Sylvester tells me, is Thyroid Eye Disease.

“It causes your eyes to bulge out,” she tells me.

Sylvester says she lost her self confidence: “You can’t look someone in the eye when your eyes are,” she stops – “you feel hideous.”

Sylvester spent four years like this. Ultimately, surgeons had to remove bone from her face and skull to make room for her swollen eye muscles. It wasn’t until spring of this year that she began wondering if it was more than bad luck that caused this disease.

That’s when she found out new water tests had shown high levels of the contaminant PFOA in local drinking water. And research links PFOA to thyroid disorders, including Graves disease.

If PFOA caused this, Sylvester wants to know.

But given the research so far on the contaminants, there’s just no good way to know for sure if PFOA did cause the disease. That’s the same for dozens, maybe hundreds of residents in New Hampshire alone, who have contaminated water, and suffer everything from high cholesterol to kidney cancer to ulcerative colitis.

Brendan DeKemper lives with his mom, a few miles from Marianne Sylvester, in Merrimack. They don’t know each other, but DeKemper and Sylvester have the same disease, Graves Disease.  

“Obviously when I first heard about it my first thought was sue Saint-Gobain! Sue the Government!” DeKemper says.

Soon, however, his self-righteousness would be replaced with something else: uncertainty.  

The state says it’s treating Saint-Gobain as responsible for contamination in Merrimack, and the company is paying for water filters and infrastructure. But other than that, it is unclear what the company might do for residents.

For instance, communities in the Mid-Ohio Valley are due $300 million from settlements with Dupont, which manufactures products containing PFOA.

The situations, however, are different. First, many communities there had water contamination levels ten or more times the maximum amount found near Saint-Gobain.

Second, DuPont was accused of negligently dumping large quantities of the stuff into landfills and bodies of water, something Saint-Gobain has not been accused of.

But DeKemper says, it’s really not about the money.

At 19, DeKemper had to spend a year home from college, undergoing two rounds of radiation. His dad was home, too. He was sick with renal cell kidney cancer, another disease linked to PFOA consumption.

“It was kinda like a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I was able to be at home more often. I happened to pull through it and he happened to go the other way with it,” DeKemper says.

Phil DeKemper passed away in 2013. The kidney cancer and the thyroid disease seem like too much of a coincidence, Brendan says. Still, he’s holding back judgment -- waiting for authorities to come to some conclusions.

“It's easy for me to say ‘it's PFOA,’ because that's what I want it to be, or that’s what we want to scapegoat it to, but right now you don’t know," he says.

In New Hampshire, there are two class action cases underway in federal court, and at least one law firm is taking on cases individually. Whether any of those will have traction is, still uncertain -- just like so many things for people wondering if their drinking water has poisoned them.