Communities around the country are grappling with a new kind of chemical pollution in their drinking water. The science and regulation around it aren’t settled, leaving some people frustrated and in limbo.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Communities across the country are grappling with a new kind of chemical pollution in drinking water. It’s called PFAS, a group of thousands of chemicals used for decades in products like Teflon pans. The science and regulation around this still aren’t settled, leaving some people in limbo. New Hampshire Public Radio’s Annie Ropeik has the story.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I don’t know where the hairbrush is.
ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: Jillian Lane’s family built a house on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in the New Hampshire town of Greenland. On a recent morning, as she wrangled her three young daughters out the door, she pointed out a picture window toward the woods in the backyard.
JILLIAN LANE: And so I look through that window, and that’s – it’s, like, a mile away.
ROPEIK: It is a federal Superfund site called Coakley Landfill. Lane didn’t even know it was there until two years ago, when she heard of a nightmarish discovery nearby – a cancer cluster of young kids all with the same rare, deadly diagnoses. Lane was desperate to know if her girls were a risk. So she started reading.
LANE: Underneath one of the articles was just a comment from a public citizen that said, Coakley – question mark. And I was like, Coakley – what the heck is Coakley? So I started googling it.
ROPEIK: She found a former town dump-turned-toxic waste cleanup area just through the woods and rusty chain-link gate.
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ROPEIK: Bob Sullivan is the city attorney of nearby Portsmouth. He says the landfill, now a huge grassy hill, used to be an empty quarry.
BOB SULLIVAN: And that was actually kind of state of the art back in the 1970s. When people were looking to get rid of municipal waste, trash, they would find a hole in the ground somewhere and fill it up – probably seemed like a good idea.
ROPEIK: But heavy metals and man-made toxins were seeping from the landfill into neighbors’ water wells. Coakley shut down and became a Superfund site in the mid-’80s. It was covered with a cap to keep rain from washing out more toxins. For years, this put the public fears to rest.
Then, amid news of the cancer cluster in 2016, workers made an alarming discovery – high levels of PFAS chemicals in surface waters around the landfill. Since then, traces of these industrial toxins have also turned up in nearby wells. Officials are still working to pinpoint where the chemicals come from, and they may never be sure what caused the cancer cluster. But PFAS chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health effects, including cancer. So neighbors like Jillian Lane are still terrified.
LANE: Right? And so we’re drinking the water, and we’re bathing in it. We’re brushing our teeth in it. And we have no idea that we’re living with this potential problem.
ROPEIK: Lane’s family spent thousands of dollars on high-tech water filters, and she devoted countless hours to public meetings and petitions for more cleanup and aid. The Environmental Protection Agency says the PFAS in nearby wells is not a threat based on state and federal standards. But that doesn’t quite line up with a June report from the Centers for Disease Control. It says PFAS may threaten human health at levels ten times lower than what the EPA and states like New Hampshire advise. At a recent federal meeting on PFAS in New Hampshire, a top CDC official, Bill Cibulas, tried to clarify.
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BILL CIBULAS: This is not a bright line here. We’re not saying that exposures estimated above our minimal risk levels are to be associated with health effects.
ROPEIK: He says the CDC focuses on public health, not regulations, though its research could play into new state and federal standards in the future. In Jillian Lane’s well, the PFAS level is lower even than what the CDC says may be risky. But she still feels the government is failing her community.
LANE: The public shouldn’t have to be driving this process. You know, none of that contributed to building trust with the (laughter) public.
CHANG: PFAS chemicals have not sickened her children, but they have left a different mark. Late this summer, the family decided to move away. Lane (ph) says she’ll keep up her activism. She just doesn’t want to live near Coakley Landfill anymore. For NPR News, I’m Annie Ropeik in Greenland, New Hampshire.
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