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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Near Saint-Gobain, Sick Residents Wonder Who Is To Blame

Brendan DeKemper, outside his family's home in Merrimack, NH.
Emily Corwin
Brendan DeKemper, outside his family's home in Merrimack, NH.
Brendan DeKemper, outside his family's home in Merrimack, NH.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR
Brendan DeKemper, outside his family's home in Merrimack, NH.

In the last couple years, millions of people across the country have learned their drinking water contains high levels of the contaminants known as perfluorichemicals. These are used to make nonstick things like Teflon and pizza boxes.  And for those with illnesses that are linked to the contaminant, that knowledge can be helpful -- and frustrating.

Sitting across from me on her porch, Marianne Sylvester’s face looks healthy. But, she says, her face looked different before she got Graves Disease, about 10 years ago. At the time, it all seemed like really bad luck. One side effect of Graves Disease, Sylvester tells me, is Thyroid Eye Disease.

“It causes your eyes to bulge out,” she tells me.

Sylvester says she lost her self confidence: “You can’t look someone in the eye when your eyes are,” she stops – “you feel hideous.”

Sylvester spent four years like this. Ultimately, surgeons had to remove bone from her face and skull to make room for her swollen eye muscles. It wasn’t until spring of this year that she began wondering if it was more than bad luck that caused this disease.

That’s when she found out new water tests had shown high levels of the contaminantPFOAin local drinking water. And research linksPFOAto thyroid disorders, including Graves disease.

IfPFOAcaused this, Sylvester wants to know.

But given the research so far on the contaminants, there’s just no good way to know for sure ifPFOAdid cause the disease. That’s the same for dozens, maybe hundreds of residents in New Hampshire alone, who have contaminated water, and suffer everything from high cholesterol to kidney cancer to ulcerative colitis.

BrendanDeKemperlives with his mom, a few miles from Marianne Sylvester, inMerrimack. They don’t know each other, butDeKemperand Sylvester have the same disease, Graves Disease.  

“Obviously when I first heard about it my first thought was sueSaint-Gobain! Sue the Government!”DeKempersays.

Soon, however, his self-righteousness would be replaced with something else: uncertainty.  

The state says it’s treatingSaint-Gobainas responsible for contamination inMerrimack, and the company is paying for water filters and infrastructure. But other than that, it is unclear what the company might do for residents.

For instance, communities in the Mid-Ohio Valley are due $300 million from settlements withDupont, which manufactures products containingPFOA.

The situations, however, are different. First, many communities there had water contamination levels ten or more times the maximum amount found nearSaint-Gobain.

Second, DuPont was accused of negligently dumping large quantities of the stuff into landfills and bodies of water, somethingSaint-Gobainhas not been accused of.

ButDeKempersays, it’s really not about the money.

At 19,DeKemperhad to spend a year home from college, undergoing two rounds of radiation. His dad was home, too. He was sick with renal cell kidney cancer, another disease linked toPFOAconsumption.

“It waskindalike a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I was able to be at home more often. Ihappened to pull through it and he happened to go the other way with it,”DeKempersays.

PhilDeKemperpassed away in 2013. The kidney cancer and the thyroid disease seem like too much of a coincidence, Brendan says. Still, he’s holding backjudgment-- waiting for authorities to come to some conclusions.

“It's easy for me to say ‘it'sPFOA,’ because that's what I want it to be, or that’s what we want to scapegoat it to, but right now you don’t know," he says.

In New Hampshire, there are two class action cases underway in federal court, and at least one law firm is taking on cases individually. Whether any of those will have traction is, still uncertain -- just like so many things for people wondering if their drinking water has poisoned them.

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
Emily Corwin
Emily Corwin covers New Hampshire news, and reports on the state's criminal justice system. She's also one of eight dedicated reporters with the New England News Collaborative, a consortium of public media newsrooms across New England.
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