Investigating Local Water Contamination

A blue river flowing between two pieces of land. Both river banks have green grass and some sand. One side of the river has many leafy trees growing in a forest.

“Don’t drink the water” isn’t something I expected to hear when I moved back from Washington, D.C. to my hometown of Merrimack, NH.  

I recognize my initial sense of surprise about the water comes from a place of privilege; clean water is not something I thought about much until I read the viral news stories about the Flint water crisis.  As the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put it, “Flint serves as a reminder that safe water isn’t a guarantee.”  Scientists still aren’t sure that the water in Michigan is safe to drink.  

Uncertainty dwells in Merrimack, too, because tests of our drinking water show high levels of PFOA/PFOS/PFAS — chemical byproducts of certain plastics.

My family lives on the Merrimack river, which originates about 45 miles north of us in Franklin NH, where the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers meet.  The Merrimack River runs all the way to Newburyport, MA, passing through historic mill towns like Nashua, NH and Lowell, MA on the way. In industrial era New England, the river mills and factories were the lifeblood of local economies.  Water was the marrow.

From New Hampshire as it Is by Edwin A. Charlton, published 1856. This text documents the incorporation of the Town of Merrimack, and details the course of the Merrimack River, the parallel railroad system, and local mills.

Less than a mile north of our home is a plastic factory called Saint-Gobain.  They make Teflon and other products at an industrial level. Based on what I’ve heard in conversation with family members, and through our town’s delightfully dramatic Facebook forums, Saint-Gobain is responsible for the presence of PFOA/PFOS/PFAS in our water. 

However, I don’t know much about how the water poisoning works, and what, if anything can be done.  I’ve heard whispers that Saint-Gobain is responsible for beloved family members’ cancer and pets’ tumors.  I’ve seen internet water warriors debating the science behind the water poisoning, whether Saint-Gobain should be held responsible, whether the local and state governments have responded adequately, whether it is safe to drink after all, and whether it is more dangerous to eat microwaved popcorn.  

Here’s what I know for sure: if I try to make coffee with tap water, my partner implores me to fill the kettle with a liter of spring water instead.  And, his grandmother can’t use her well water anymore, which they’ve had at the house for decades. And, it costs hundreds of dollars to test your water at home to learn whether it’s safe to drink or not.

A blue river flowing past a river bank.  On the bank there is short green grass, shrubs, and milkweed flowers.  A large black dog is walking in the water.
The Merrimack River, accessed from the trail near my family’s home.

I’ve learned about dedicated websites and Facebook groups to track information and advocate for better testing and solutions.  The town also has a taskforce dedicated to this, and the task force publishes complicated documents detailing meeting minutes and intensive chemical science that most of us don’t fully understand.  (Hey, I don’t know about you, but I was not in the smart kid science classes. AP Lit, yes – but I got a C- in high school chemistry. It’s fine; grades aren’t everything.)

So, I have a lot of questions:

  • What do we know about the effects of PFOA/PFOS/PFAS?  What stories surround the discovery of high levels of PFOA/PFOS/PFAS contamination in Merrimack?  
  • How do the townspeople understand the situation?  What do they want done about it? Who do they think is responsible for solving the problem?  What politics are at play?
  • What responses from the town/state have had the most impact?  What politics are at play on a grander scale?
  • Will the water ever be safe to drink again?
  • How does this situation fit in with what we know about other environmental issues in New Hampshire?
  • How does the story of PFOA/PFOS/PFAS contamination in Merrimack compare with similar contaminations elsewhere?

I’m finding oodles of articles and research to look into while in isolation due to the Covid-19 outbreak.  Looking deep into a complex public health issue that isn’t about the virus is soothing to me.  There’s nothing we love more than a hyperfixation to soothe our anxiety about the apocalypse, right? 

So, I want to learn more about PFAS, Merrimack water systems, Saint-Gobain, the local and state politics surrounding this, and our community’s cultural interpretation.  I’m interested in researching what I can find online, maybe talking to some townspeople, and writing about what I find.  

I’ll keep you updated.

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