The quality of drinking water has been a well-known international concern.
People hear stories of contaminated drinking water on the news or through word-of-mouth, but in the end, people tend to forget about these concerns until it happens in their own backyard.
New Hampshire Representative Mindi Messmer has studied the cancer cluster in-depth that happened along the New Hampshire seacoast. Messmer said it wasn’t until her son brought the issue to her attention that she knew about it.
A cancer cluster is an area with a higher than average amount of cancer cases among the area’s residents. Her son said peers of his were talking about other kids being diagnosed with cancer. Two days later, Messmer received a call from her friend, suggesting there could be an environmental link to that issue and asked to get her perspective as an environmental scientist. As someone who’s received a master’s degree from Georgetown University and took some classes that included epidemiology, Messmer has an in-depth knowledge of how to identify a cancer cluster.
She used that information to determine that what her son was witnessing was, in fact, just that.
In 2014, she reported the cancer cluster to the state, and two years later, the state confirmed it was an issue. Messmer said, however, the state decided they were going to “sit back and see what happens.”
Seeing they were not going to take action, Messmer reported the ordeal to newspaper stations in the seacoast area. Not only did it spark public outrage, it also sparked a series of actions that would lead her to become a politician. Messmer became a part of Senator Maggie Hassan’s task force that would investigate the pollution issue.
After taking groundwater and water samples from wells nearby the Coakley Landfill, she found they contained perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which are known to cause negative health effects in both rats and humans.
The entire time, she said she faced opposition from the people who ran the Coakley Landfill, as well as the state’s epidemiologist. Messmer said the landfill workers told her it would cost too much money to take care of the contamination issue, and the epidemiologist said the information on the health effects of PFCs were too “controversial.”
However, the epidemiologist later changed his views.
Since then, Messmer said her work led the state government to develop better guidelines for physicians.
While she faced many obstacles and opposition, she said she has no regrets. “While it was controversial and it was hard for me to do, and I suffered some backlash for it, it changed three important things, in my opinion, so I wouldn’t take it back,” Messmer said.
On Monday, Feb. 26, Messmer came to Keene State College to speak about her experience with PFCs and other chemicals that are known contaminants in the state. Messmer said the minimum amount of PFCs that are allowed in New Hampshire drinking water is 70 parts per trillion. According to Messmer, you can see the health effects at just 50 parts per trillion. Messmer also said there is a limit to how much arsenic is allowed in drinking water in the state.
In her presentation, she said New Hampshire has the highest rate of breast cancer in the country and suggested it is tied to contamination in the drinking water.
One of the presentation attendees, Grassroots Organizer for Rights and Democracy Heather Stockwell, said she did not have knowledge that there was a limit on the amount of arsenic being allowed in the drinking water prior to the presentation. “I didn’t even realize until today that bladder cancer is really caused by arsenic, and that’s what my mom died of three years ago. I was kind of educated on that and obviously I still have a lot to learn.”
Stockwell said she met Messmer when she was first elected and followed her PFC study closely. For the past two years, Stockwell got involved politically in the state and organized some events.
Representative James McConnell, another presentation attendee, said he has been working with Messmer on environmental-related bills, including one that lowers the limit of arsenic allowed in drinking water. McConnell said he met Messmer a little over a year ago and that he agreed with her bills she had proposed. McConnell said he decided he would team up with Messmer after learning of her background in science.
With his political experience and her knowledge of environmental science, they paired up on environmental-related legislature. “Mindi is quite terrific. She is very capable, she is a very hard worker, she’s really excellent to work with. I enjoy working with Mindi… We work together on a lot of these issues,” McConnell said.
KSC senior Allen Chague, who also attended the presentation, has been working with Messmer since the beginning of 2017. Chague said he worked with her on a seminar project when he first met her.
Chague also worked with McConnell, who helped him get into the legislation side of the issue he and Messmer were working on.
Chague said the best thing someone can do to make a difference is to make an effort to be heard. “Mindi Messmer said it great; the best way to get anything done is to be heard, to be an activist, to bother people, make yourself known, make yourself heard,” Chague said. “That’s what I’m attempting to do at this point, and I never once in a million years thought that I’d be doing this.”
Katherine Glosser can be contacted at email@example.com.