Is this New Hampshire?

The state’s standard for MTBE concentration is disturbingly high


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Recently my legislative colleague Rep. Jim McConnell, a Republican from Cheshire County, asked me to come to southwest New Hampshire. The goal was to learn about cancers in West Swanzey, which McConnell reported as a significant public health issue in his district. What I learned on this visit was deeply disturbing.

According to the most recent census, 40 percent of household incomes in this area put the population below the poverty line. Many of the houses in the area were very modest mobile homes or smaller residences. Probably most have more than one working family member, yet the median household income is $38,856, which would average out to approximately $9.34 per hour for a dual-income household working full time.

Patrick Short accompanied us and showed me several correspondences from the NH Department of Environmental Services relating to a significant release of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) from a gasoline station across the street.

Exposure to MTBE causes tumors, neurological, kidney, liver and reproductive damage in animals; however, I found no human studies for MTBE from a search of the medical literature.

According to the American Cancer Society, “though MTBE has been used as a fuel additive since 1979, there have been no long-term studies of the ability of MTBE to cause cancer in workers or other people exposed to high concentrations.”

The U.S. Supreme Court determined that Exxon Mobil owed New Hampshire $236 million in 2016 for MTBE groundwater contamination on top of the $90 million the state received previously from a settlement with other oil companies.

Short told me that the water from his private well is undrinkable; he says it smells like gasoline. He travels 17 miles in each direction to fill water jugs with potable water from an adjacent town for use in his home.

Short, both of whose parents along with his dog died of cancer, has one non-cancerous tumor on his right breast and one new tumor on his left that he was going to have biopsied that day. He explained that his home, which sits across the street from a gas station, would be worth $40,000 if he could sell it. He paid over $100,000 for it.

Short accompanied us on a drive around an approximate one-mile radius of his home, pointing out a total of around 30 homes to us that he is aware of at least one person dying or contracting cancers and some with numerous cases. Ages of death or cancer diagnosis ranged from children to the elderly. He explained that they had been diagnosed with a range of cancers and neurological disorders.

Short is undertaking his own study, testing tap water for people in his area and logging cases of cancers, neurological disorders, attention deficit disorder and others.

In 2014, the NH Department of Health and Human Services determined that there was not a significantly higher incidence of cancers in the West Swanzey area when compared with the rest of New Hampshire.

The analysis is problematic in many ways. For example, it excluded many potential cases whose addresses were post office boxes. For this and other reasons, it is often difficult to conduct public health assessments in under-served populations that are more likely to have environmental nightmares, like gasoline stations, in their backyards. It is also less likely that under-served populations have the economic resources or willpower to take up a fight like this. However, a group of 20 residents of West Swanzey who disagree with the state’s assessment of the cancer cluster has filed a lawsuit over concerns about the seemingly high rate of cancer in West Swanzey. From what I have seen, I disagree with the agency’s cancer cluster assessment.

Since my election in 2016, I have realized how important it is to have scientists in the Legislature to guide policy on important issues relating to safe drinking water and the environment. Obviously, if there are few exceedances of the state’s ambient groundwater quality standard for MTBE in private wells and the cancer incidence and prevalence is high, the standard is too high.

Rep. McConnell has filed, and I am co-sponsoring, legislation to reduce the ambient groundwater quality standard for MTBE in New Hampshire and prevent cancer. People of New Hampshire are not expendable. Every life matters.

Mindi Messmer, D-Rye, Rockingham District 24 in the NH House.

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