Trying to decipher blood test results in southern New Hampshire

by Kimberly Houghton, originally posted on February 05, 2017


Priscilla Sepessy is one of nearly 150 area residents struggling to understand the results of blood tests showing elevated levels of perfluorooctanoic acid.

“Right now I am healthy, but what does this mean down the line — that is my concern,” Sepessy said of test results released by the state last week.

Her results showed a PFOA level of 64.3 micrograms per liter. It is her understanding that the national average range is up to 43 micrograms
per liter.

“I don’t know the scope of this, and I don’t know how dangerous the levels are. It is confusing.”

Sepessy, 58, lives in Merrimack, down the road from Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the facility identified as the likely source of water and ground contamination in the region.

Initial test results from dozens of blood samples taken from residents in southern New Hampshire with private wells reveal more than double the amount of PFOA contamination in the blood stream compared to the average U.S. population.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services released a summary of the preliminary test results, which were mailed to 147 participants who had their blood tested in Merrimack, Litchfield and surrounding communities.

According to the summary of results using a more specific range (the 95th percentile), residents tested in southern New Hampshire reveal an average of 32.1 micrograms per liter compared to a national average of 5.7 micrograms per liter.

“There is no interpretation of the results,” said Laurene Allen, who is spearheading efforts to gather experts to help citizens understand their individual blood test results.

“We have to know how to handle this within our own bodies — we need a support network for these people to help reduce anxiety and get answers,” said Allen, who has lived in Merrimack since 1995.

Allen uses Merrimack Village District water, the municipal water supply, and has not had the opportunity to get her blood tested.

She was hoping to participate in a separate blood test study for MVD customers, but did not receive a letter inviting her to be one of the 200 residents to participate. 

An area of uncertainty

Chronic exposure to PFOA, a man-made chemical once used to make Teflon, has been linked to a myriad of medical problems, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer and other illnesses.

The state epidemiologist, Dr. Benjamin Chan, said last week that there is no abnormal or normal cutoff for PFOA exposure, and that the blood test numbers don’t necessarily help a person or their health care provider understand whether they will have any health effects.

“We still don’t know how to interpret these levels relative to someone’s health,” admitted Chan. “This is an area of uncertainty.”

He said that the elevated PFOA levels detected in local blood tests are not as high as in other states where water contamination has become a problem, specifically in Bennington, Vt., and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

Testing and treating

Efforts are ongoing in Merrimack, Litchfield, Amherst and Bedford to provide water treatment options to areas that have detected contamination, including the construction of public water mains to residents with private wells, and point-of-use treatment systems.

PFOA contamination was discovered last year around the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics facility in Merrimack, prompting the distribution of bottled water to hundreds of residents living within a certain vicinity around the site.

Legislation is pending in Concord to address some of the water quality issues in southern New Hampshire and near the Pease Tradeport.

“People are concerned about their children, who may be much more vulnerable to contamination and health issues,” state Rep. Chris Christensen of Merrimack said.

While more data is being gathered on the contamination problem, he said it is important to receive ambient levels of PFOA to fully understand the extent of the situation.

Although blood testing is being conducted in areas where contamination is already known, he said blood testing should also take place in regions where there is not believed to be any PFOA.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot known about it,” said Christensen. “I am sympathetic to those people that have been drinking contaminated water, or perhaps contaminated, and for their children.”

He praised the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and DHHS for promptly addressing the contamination situation when Saint-Gobain reported its findings last March.

Christensen said it might be beneficial for Chan to meet with some of the residents to help them understand the numbers.

Lawsuits filed

In December, a second class-action lawsuit was filed against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics — this time from several Merrimack residents who say they have been exposed to high levels of perfluorinated chemicals.

The class-action lawsuit includes about 15 adults and seven children, including a couple whose child has developed leukemia, and on behalf of other local residents dealing with contaminants in their water.

All of the plaintiffs argue that they have a legitimate fear of developing cancer or other diseases as a result of the contamination allegedly caused when Saint-Gobain released PFOA into the environment and it was ultimately detected in local water sources in 2016.

James Volner and his wife, Beverly, are two of the plaintiffs included in the lawsuit.

“I did have my blood tested on Nov. 2, but I haven’t gotten back the results,” said James Volner. “It is the government, what would you expect?”

They were told that it could take three months to receive the results.

James Volner has lived in Merrimack since 1971, and says he really isn’t too concerned about his health.

“I haven’t died from it yet,” he added.

Health concerns

Not everyone has the same optimism, including Johanna Jones, who lives in a condominium development across the street from two municipal wells taken off-line because of elevated levels of PFOA.

“I am concerned about my health — there are a lot of people that are. I have had cancer twice, and doctors told me that one of my cancers in 2001 was likely caused by an environmental concern,” said Jones, a survivor of thyroid cancer and a form of sarcoma cancer.

As residents with private wells are receiving their blood test results, she said residents utilizing Merrimack Village District water are also anxious to get their blood tested.

“There is just no way they are not going to be on the higher side,” Jones predicts of the results. “We have people that are sick and have been sick.”

The newest test results are alarming, said Jones, who fears that the contamination began long before Saint-Gobain took over the plant, but instead when ChemFab occupied the site.

Although the facility is housed in Merrimack, there are dozens of residents who live in Litchfield who are also affected.

A new water main along Route 3A and adjacent roads has been constructed, which will eventually provide public water to several residences with private wells.

In addition, Pennichuck Corp. is currently designing pump station upgrades and a new water line for the Darrah Pond Pump Station in Litchfield.

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