After progress on PFAS bills this session, Merrimack reps promise, ‘We’ll be back’

N.H. State House

N.H. State House

By CLAIRE SULLIVAN

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-06-2024 10:24 AM

On Rep. Wendy Thomas’ Merrimack street, there are four private wells contaminated with PFAS, and four homes struck by cancer.

In one house, the dad died of kidney cancer. In another, a father and his adult son both died of colon cancer. In the third, the dad is dying of prostate cancer. 

Thomas’ home is the fourth. Her children are sick, and she has had to put down four dogs because of cancer. In 2019, her husband had a quadruple cardiac bypass at age 55. In 2022, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

She had no genetic predisposition. She had no family history. But she did have 12 PFAS chemicals in her blood over the toxic limit set for humans. She attributes those chemicals to her health problems and those of her neighbors.

“We’ve hit some roadblocks,” Thomas, a Democrat, said of the PFAS legislation pushed by her and other lawmakers this session, “but I think we’ve made significant progress.”

Several bills aimed at PFAS – or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – passed the Legislature this session and await approval from the governor. Some of them were more watered down than their sponsors would have liked, but they’ll collectively put some limits on selling products with intentionally added PFAS, notify property-buyers of the chemicals, and create liability for PFAS-producing facilities.

PFAS are in New Hampshire’s air, water, and soil. The problems have been especially acute in southern New Hampshire, particularly in the communities surrounding Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, a French manufacturer that announced in August it would close its Merrimack facility that contaminated hundreds of private wells.

The class of chemicals, of which there are thousands of variations, have been used in industrial and commercial products since the mid-20th century. The “forever chemicals” – dubbed so because they don’t break down naturally in the environment – can be found in food packaging, waterproof cosmetics, dental floss, stain-resistant carpets, smartphones, cars, and much more.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Concord’s new ice cream shop offers unique flavors
Opinion: A look at the Elderly Property Tax Exemption
‘Don’t fall behind’ - Taking and selling properties left to local discretion
Rolling out the red carpet for Concord High prom
Hometown Hero: A walk around the mall with Darbster volunteer Uncle Ross
Opinion: Outstanding issues at the Broken Ground site

Their presence in the environment has contaminated fish, dairy products, produce, and humans. Nearly all Americans have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Research has linked PFAS to a number of health issues, including high cholesterol, weakened immune systems, decreased fertility, increased blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental problems in children, and prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.

“The goal is to stop the source,” said Rep. Nancy Murphy, a Merrimack Democrat who sponsored several PFAS-related bills. “And that’s our intent, and we’re not gonna stop until we do that.”

Banning some PFAS products

A list of products with intentionally added PFAS will be prohibited from sale in New Hampshire starting in 2027 if the governor signs into law House Bill 1649, passed by the Legislature. That list includes:

■Carpets or rugs;

■Cosmetics;

■Textile treatments, such as those that add PFAS for stain- or water-resistant properties;

■Feminine hygiene products, such as tampons and pads;

■Food packaging and containers, such as plates, bowls, and bags;

■Products for children under 12, such as high chairs, playmats, and strollers;

■Upholstered furniture; and

■Textile furnishings, such as draperies, bedding, and towels.

This bill would not include unintentional PFAS contamination of a product in the production or shipping process, said bill sponsor Rep. Karen Ebel, a New London Democrat. 

The bill would also exempt medical devices, adult mattresses, personal computers, wireless phones, and some other electronics. It would also allow products with at least 85 percent recycled content, the resale of products made before the ban, and replacement parts for products manufactured before 2027.

The bill would also – through language adopted from a separate Senate bill — require that funds received by the state through settling PFAS litigation be used to support public water systems contaminated by PFAS.

Ebel came to be interested in PFAS through her work chairing the state’s Solid Waste Working Group, created by statute to support the Department of Environmental Services on related issues.

Because of the abundance of PFAS in a variety of products, those chemicals end up in landfills – and, consequently, in the polluted water called leachate that leaks out of them. Some of that is treated by wastewater facilities, but some of it ends up in the environment and drinking water.

Ebel’s bill sought to stop that contamination before it got to the landfills. And considering the impact PFAS have had on New Hampshire, she said, “what better state to ban some of the products that have wreaked havoc and join other states that are doing this?”

Murphy, a cosponsor, would have liked to see fewer exclusions in the bill and wants to amend it in the future.

“These are incremental changes, and they’re far from perfect,” she said, “but we can’t let the … perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Accountability

Other measures this session sought to hold polluters accountable and get more data to explain the health outcomes people are seeing in their communities.

PFAS facilities that release such chemicals into the groundwater or surface water in total combined concentrations of 100 parts per trillion or greater would be held liable under House Bill 1415 by Murphy, which passed both chambers.

The goal of her bill, Murphy said, is to give our state agencies “some teeth in the law.”

“When polluters make that decision to shut down operations and leave the facility where they’ve done business,” Murphy said, “we must be sure that they are held responsible for removal of all PFAS materials and waste.”

Murphy said she is “cautiously optimistic” the governor will sign her bill. 

Another measure passed by the Legislature, House Bill 398, would require that PFAS be included along with radon and arsenic in the notification about common contaminants in New Hampshire provided to a property-buyer.

The notice, if approved by the governor, would say that PFAS “have been detected at levels that exceed federal and/or state advisories or standards in wells throughout New Hampshire,” especially in the southern part of the state.

“Testing of the water by an accredited laboratory can measure PFAS levels and inform a buyer’s decision regarding the need to install water treatment systems,” the notice would read.

Thomas, the bill sponsor, wanted testing included in the bill but said the House watered it down from its original version.

She said she has heard stories of people who bought houses in town without ever being informed of the water contamination.

“To me, that’s just criminal,” Thomas said, “because, again, you’re not allowing them to protect themselves.”

Another proposal, House Bill 1114, sponsored by Murphy, will extend by five years the life of a commission to study PFAS released into the air, soil, and groundwater in Merrimack, Bedford, Londonderry, Hudson, and Litchfield.

Murphy sponsored the bill that first established the commission in 2019, shortly after she arrived at the State House. PFAS contamination is the issue that propelled her to public service. 

“I had never been a legislator and actually, quite frankly, had never been interested in anything political” until then, Murphy said. But as a now-retired nurse and mother of six children who were feeling health impacts associated with PFAS, she quickly became interested.

The commission studies the health impacts of PFAS releases, and the re-upped version of the bill includes Hudson at the request of a lawmaker from there. Its membership represents state agencies, lawmakers, scientists, local government officials, and citizens from affected areas.

“This commission has been instrumental in seeking the collection of health data relative to the health concerns that we see in these communities and then spearheading the legislation to address that,” Murphy said.

‘We’ll be back’

Mindi Messmer, a scientist who discovered a pediatric cancer cluster along the Seacoast in 2014 and represented Rye in the House as a Democrat from 2016 to 2018, said she was the first person to file PFAS-related legislation in New Hampshire.

As a scientist, she thought she could explain the issues in a logical way and get people on board.

“That didn’t happen a lot of times,” she said, “and I also faced a ton of pushback from the regulators at the time.”

Murphy said they’re “light-years” ahead of where they were when Messmer first raised PFAS as an issue in the State House. The lawmakers focused on PFAS – some of whom call themselves “water warriors” – didn’t get everything they wanted this session, but they have made progress they said would have been hard to imagine a few years ago.

Murphy and Thomas are both rearing to bring forth more legislation next session – some of which will be aimed at strengthening bills passed this year, such as the product ban. Other initiatives may focus on health insurance coverage for PFAS-related health issues.

“We’ll be back,” Murphy said. “Anything that we didn’t pass, we’ll be back.”

For these lawmakers, this fight is as personal as it gets.

Thomas had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed preventively after her breast cancer diagnosis. “Sometimes I want to just forget that I have cancer,” she said, but she shares her story often to put a face to the consequences of PFAS contamination. She points at her chest when she talks about the issue in the State House.

“To live in a PFAS-contaminated town,” Thomas said, “we have to amputate parts of our bodies to lay at the altar of profit.”