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State Recommends Dartmouth for Merrimack Cancer Study

CONCORD — State officials are recommending Dartmouth College conduct an 18-month feasibility study of the impact of “forever” chemicals from the Saint Gobain Performance Plastics plant or other environmental exposures on an unusually high rate of kidney cancer in Merrimack.

The Legislature included the $500,000 study in the state budget that Gov. Chris Sununu signed last June. Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Weaver said Dartmouth is the only entity capable of completing the Phase 3 Feasibility Study before the money runs out in mid-2025.

“The limited time frame of fund availability and the urgency of the public interest in progress on this effort necessitate that the vendor works as quickly as possible,” Weaver wrote in a letter to the Executive Council.

The council is scheduled to take up the proposed no-bid contract when it meets Wednesday at the State House. For several years, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Merrimack along with environmental activists have sought this study as the next step to learn the degree that the chemicals may have caused the cancer spike.

Dartmouth is considered best equipped to do the study since it has operated and maintained the New Hampshire State Cancer Registry since 1985 with a “well-developed cancer data reporting and analysis” system, Weaver said. It is also the only comprehensive cancer center in New Hampshire designated by the National Cancer Institute, she said.

“If another contractor were to be selected, it would affect the timely design, approval and execution of Phase 3,” Weaver added.

In late 2021, the New Hampshire Cancer Registry reported on all major cancer statistics for residents of Merrimack from 2009-2018. Over that period, the town had 66 cases of kidney cancer. The average for towns that size would be 46.5 cases, officials said. The study was a follow-up to a 2018 cancer incidence report on Merrimack after chemicals known as PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were found in drinking wells in the town and other communities.

PFAS can be found in the air, drinking water and food supply and can cause cancer and other severe health problems. Last August, Saint-Gobain executives announced the company would close its Merrimack facility. The decision came a week after the state had approved a permit to allow the plant to continue operating for another five years. Company officials first informed the state in 2016 it had detected PFAS in water inside the plant.

In response to multiple lawsuits in 2022, Saint-Gobain reached a “consent decree” with the state, committing to provide more than 1,000 homes with a water treatment system to treat PFAS-tainted water in a 65-mile area that included users in Merrimack, Londonderry, Litchfield, Hudson and Bedford.

Town officials have stressed the plant closing doesn’t release the company from meeting its promises. Under the proposed contract, Dartmouth will form a Feasibility Study Steering Committee, Community Advisory Board and a Scientific Advisory Board to guide its work. The work will also include conducting community engagement studio sessions to get advice from community and patient stakeholders about the project.

State officials said this would be just the second Phase 3 feasibility cancer study in recent decades in New Hampshire. One of the primary outcomes of the study will determine whether the findings warrant the most definitive examination, a Phase 4 epidemiological study that officials said would take much longer and cost several million dollars to complete.

Source: Union Leader