ROCKS AND DINOSAURS
In 1981, Mindi Messmer enrolled at Syracuse University and started to study computer science. She soon told her mother that this particular major was not for her. “Well,” said her mother, “You’ve always liked rocks.” And so Mindi switched her major to geology.
Mindi graduated from Syracuse in 1985 and went on to study bedrock geology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
In 1988 Mindi started to work in the environmental science field. She continued to work in that field, starting her own woman-owned business in 1998.
Later that year, Mindi's son Justin was born and in 2002 Mindi's son Kegan was born. Working at home in her own business afforded Mindi the opportunity to keep up with the needs of her family and her business at the same time.
In 2013, Mindi decided to try classes at Georgetown University to better understand how toxins impact public health. She enrolled In an M.S. Degree program in Clinical and Translational Science.
In early 2014, Kegan Messmer, ten, of Rye, NH, told his mother that kids in his elementary school were getting sick. Really sick. One of the boys had leukemia and others had cancer. Kegan’s mom, environmental consultant Mindi Messmer, had recently enrolled in a graduate program in epidemiology at Georgetown University. She was taking classes remotely, visiting the Washington, DC campus about once a month.
Mindi was alarmed by Kegan’s news. It seemed to her an unusually high concentration of childhood cancer cases for such a small area. She talked with friends who were equally concerned. Four cases of a rare childhood soft-tissue cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS), came to light. The women suspected that the cause of the outbreak was environmental.
Mindi investigated further. Based on her research, in March 2014, she contacted the State of New Hampshire Cancer Registry, based at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine, and reported the cancer cluster in Rye.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a greater-than-expected number of cases of the same type of cancer, occurring in a limited geographical area over a limited period of time, comprises a cluster.
From 1972 to 1982 the Coakley Landfill, a 27-acre site located in the towns of North Hampton and Greenland, abutting Rye, accepted municipal and industrial waste products from surrounding towns. When this practice was discontinued, the site was used for disposal of incinerator residue from the Pease Air Force Base. As early as 1979, residents of properties near the landfill complained to the state about the poor quality of their well water; in December of 1983, the Superfund National Priorities List, which tracks known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants throughout the United States and its territories, identified the following “substances of concern” (read: carcinogens) at the landfill: benzene, tetrachloroethene, arsenic, 2-butanone, phenol, diethyl phthalate, chlorobenzene, dichloroethane, chromium, and nickel. In 1989 the landfill was declared a source of contamination in local surface waters, groundwater and, to an unknown extent, in wetlands to the west.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, “The primary source of contamination is the landfill. VOCs and metals are the primary contaminants. On- and off-site surface water and groundwater are contaminated. The site is located on a groundwater/surface water divide, and residential wells to the south, southeast and northeast are contaminated with low levels of VOCs. Residential and commercial areas surround the site.” https://cumulis.epa.gov/superc...
On February 11, 2016, two years after Mindi Messmer voiced her concerns to the New Hampshire Cancer Registry, Mindi and another mother were called to the Rye Library, where state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan told them that, in fact, cases of children with cancer were occurring at a higher-than-expected rate in Rye, Portsmouth, North Hampton, Greenland, and New Castle. But the NH Department of Health and Human Services said no action would be taken because the cause of the outbreak could not be definitively determined.
On the evening of Tuesday, March 15, 2016, two years after Mindi Messmer voiced her concerns to the New Hampshire Cancer Registry, state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan told a gathering of residents at the Rye Elementary School that, indeed, an unusually high number of cases of RMS had occurred in the five towns in close proximity to the Coakley Landfill, from which, according to the EPA, the various carcinogens listed above had leaked.
Residents at the meeting expressed concern about the Coakley Landfill.
But Dr. Chan repeated that no action would be taken because the cause of the cluster could not be definitively identified.
Not everyone was convinced.
In 2016, then-New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, a resident of nearby Exeter, quickly created a Task Force on the Seacoast Cancer Cluster. The governor appointed Mindi to the task force. Later it was converted to a commission whose work is still ongoing.
Among those who were impressed by Mindi’s work on the cluster issue was State Rep. Dr. Tom Sherman of Rye. Sherman, who had decided to run for a seat in the State Senate, urged Mindi to run for his open seat.
She told him he was nuts. She told him she was a mom, a scientist, a business owner, but not a politician. He told her, “We need more scientists in policy-making.”
She ran. She won. She was the top vote-getter in the district.
In less than two years, she has passed three bills that were signed into law in her freshman year that formed three commissions working to prevent cancer and chronic illness in New Hampshire and protect drinking water. She is also credited with raising awareness about drinking water protection in the state. This session she has worked on 41 bills, about half that she sponsored, to prevent cancer and chronic disease, protect workers’, minorities’, and women's rights and for economic and social justice. She has continued to seek justice and closure for the families of cancer sufferers who live in close proximity to the Coakley Landfill.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Last fall, after U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) announced that she would not run for re-election, Mindi considered entering the race to succeed her.
She examined the makeup of the current Congress and noted that the great majority of its members were lawyers or businessmen.
You could count the number of scientists on one hand and have fingers left over.
During her time in the State House Mindi has effectively advocated for an increase in the minimum wage, reproductive rights, gender equality, universal healthcare, expanded Social Security, and a range of environmental issues based on her conviction that every American has the right to clean air and clean water.
She determined that, in one way or another, a scientist’s perspective would enrich the conversations about each of these issues on the national level.
On November 14, 2017, she announced her candidacy.
She has been working hard running a grassroots campaign ever since. Her campaign "walks the walk, not just talks the talk," refusing to take special interest or corporate PAC money. She says her special interests are the citizens of New Hampshire.
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Education and Career
I have lived in the New Hampshire Seacoast region since 1985 after receiving a B.S. degree in Geology from Syracuse University. I attended graduate school for earth sciences at the University of New Hampshire. I just completed my M.S. at Georgetown University in clinical and translational research. I plan to combine my expertise in environmental contaminants with an understanding of the health effects associated with these toxins.
My professional work as an environmental consultant has focused on the evaluation, design, development, and implementation of conventional and innovative in-situ and on-site technologies for remediation of contaminated sites. I have consulted businesses, banks, and the U.S. government on the presence of environmental contaminants.
I have conducted and managed projects ranging in scale from small hazardous waste site assessments and remediation design, to large remedial investigations and remedial action under a variety of regulatory programs including RCRA, CERCLA, and State Superfund.
I was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2016. I am known for blowing the whistle on a Centers for Disease Control (CDC)-defined double cancer cluster in a 5-town area of the New Hampshire seacoast and my advocacy for drinking water protection, chronic disease and cancer prevention. Three bills that I sponsored in my freshman year as a legislator were passed and signed into law. I continue to advocate for legislation to protect drinking water, prevent chronic disease, worker and firefighter safety and protection, and union worker protections.
I am a founding member of New Hampshire Safe Water Alliance, a national organization to educate and advocate for environmental protection.
Awards and Publications
Mindi was awarded the Less Cancer Leadership Award for her work associated with Governor Hassan's Pediatric Cancer Task Force.
Mindi is the author of several publications including:
Messmer, M., et al. "I-SPY 2 Breast Cancer Trial Model as Innovation for Alzheimer's Disease Therapies". JAMA Neurology (2017); 74(9):1027-1028
Fam, S., Messmer, M., Lunt, A., Marcott, K., "Biological Reactive Wall/Enhancement of Intrinsic Conditions", In-Situ and On-Site Bioremediation, New Orleans (1997)
Fam, S., Messmer, M., Nautiyal, D., Hansen, M., "Not As Simple As It Seems", Water Environment Federation, Industrial Wastewater. 7:29 (1996)
Fam, S., Messmer, M., Nautiyal, D., Hansen, M., "Critical State of the Art Review of Vapor Extraction", Proc. Purdue Ind. Waste Conf. 50:137 (1995).
Fam, S., Pirelli, T., Sullivan, T., Findlay, M., Fogel, S., and Messmer, M., "Anaerobic Bioremediation of Chlorinated VOCs in Conjunction with Dual Extraction", In-Situ and On-Site Bioremediation, Monterey, (1998).
Mindi is a blogger at Medium.com, and writes for the Less Cancer Journal. She is a member of the National Writers Union and is the author of several academic publications.