A French industrial fabric producer who poisoned drinking water supplies with ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS in 65 square miles (168 square km) of the south New Hampshire misled regulators about how much of the toxic substance he used, according to a group of state lawmakers and public health advocates.
The company, Saint Gobain, now admits that it has used far more SPFA than regulators previously knew, and officials fear thousands more residents outside the contamination zone boundaries could be drinking contaminated water in an area plagued by clusters of cancers and other health problems thought to arise from PFAS pollution.
In 2018, Saint Gobain agreed to supply drinking water to the 65-square-mile area under a consent agreement with New Hampshire regulators, and overwhelming evidence suggested it used more PFAS than previously admitted. surfaced in a treasure of documents released in a separate class action lawsuit.
“People are sick, there are very high cancer rates and people have literally died, so when you see what’s happening and the company is acting like this, it’s really upsetting,” Mindi Messner said. , a state official who analyzed the documents and sent them to the New Hampshire Attorney General and state regulators.
Saint Gobain has denied any wrongdoing. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of approximately 12,000 chemicals used in dozens of industries to make products resistant to water, stains, and heat. Highly toxic compounds do not break down naturally and are linked to cancer, thyroid disease, kidney problems, decreased immunity, birth defects and other serious health issues. They have been called “forever chemicals” because of their longevity in the environment.
The Saint Gobain Performance Plastics plant in Merrimack, New Hampshire, has for decades treated its products with PFOA, a type of PFAS, to make them stronger. The company released PFOA from its smokestacks and the chemicals, once on the ground, moved through the ground and into aquifers. Hundreds of residential and municipal wells draw groundwater.
As the company and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) negotiated the 2018 consent agreement, company officials repeatedly stated that they did not use pure PFOA or ‘they had no history of use, but instead used a dilute PFOA mixture of which the toxic chemical was only about 2%.
In a 2016 letter to state regulators, Saint Gobain wrote that it “has never used [pure PFOA] as a raw material at all times” in Merrimack, and in 2014 he told the EPA that he “is not and never has been a…user of PFOA per se anywhere in the United States.”
Diluted PFOA would not spread as widely as pure PFOA, and modeling that determined the boundaries within which Saint Gobain would be responsible for providing drinking water supplies and remediating contamination was developed with the dilute solution as input.
But documents released as part of the lawsuit show that Saint Gobain knew it was using pure PFOA years before the consent decree.
Among the evidence is 2003 emails between company employees explicitly stating that the Merrimack plant treated its fabric with pure PFOA. Meanwhile, a former Saint Gobain lawyer who is now whistleblowing testified that sales records from 3M, which sold PFOA to Saint Gobain, show the company purchased “hundreds, if not thousands” of pounds of PFOA. pure. 3M’s sales records are sealed in the class action.
And a DuPont salesperson, who also sold PFAS products to Saint Gobain, testified last year that he “learned that they used [pure PFOA] … and add it to our products”.
The modeling used to develop the boundaries of the original contamination zone is “fundamentally flawed” because it does not take pure PFOA into account, an engineer hired by Saint Gobain testified in February.
Saint Gobain no longer denies having used pure PFOA; however, in a statement to the Guardian, the company wrote that it “vehemently denies any allegations that it withheld data from or misled the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.” The information was “not new” because it appeared in 90,000 documents she gave to DES since 2016, the company wrote.
Messmer said she was skeptical of this explanation: “If you throw 90,000 papers at someone, is that really notifying them?”
In response to a follow-up question on why it developed the consent decree modeling assuming diluted PFOA instead of pure PFOA, the company stated that the type of PFOA was only a ‘factor taken into account in setting the limits’.
In their July letter to the attorney general’s office and DES, Messmer and other lawmakers called for an investigation and expanding the boundaries of the contamination zone. The state has a “solid legal basis to hold Saint Gobain fully responsible for its pollution, including beyond the current [boundary]“, we read in the letter. The attorney general’s office told the Guardian it was reviewing the documents while DES did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some are also frustrated with DES. Documents show he knew he did not have full records of purchasing PFAS from Saint Gobain until 2004, but entered into the consent agreement anyway.
“The regulatory agency is broken, and I’m really angry at the state departments that are supposed to be there to protect the environment and the residents,” said Laurene Allen, a Merrimack resident and activist for the potable water. “Think of the harm that could have been avoided.”
Documents reveal company executive indicating in 2006 that Saint Gobain “should minimize the potential health risks” of PFOA compared to other PFAS, and assert that there are “no proven risks” to health. But a company from 1995 note shows that management had issued an executive order to stop using PFOA “due to its toxicity and long half-life”.
The company had also carried out blood tests for PFOA on its employees in 2006, but the results remain under seal, and the factory’s former owner in 1980 investigated why its male employees were suffering from impotence and “polymer fever”.
“They all knew,” Messmer said.