What’s in your drinking water? This a question many in the U.S. may not think to ask themselves. On Wednesday, Feb. 20 the Environmental Studies department, along with environmental health scientist and U.S. Congressional candidate Mindi Messmer, hosted a screening of the film “The Devil We Know” and held a panel discussion afterwards.
This film follows a community in West Virginia as they come to realize the harm the corporation Du Pont has done to them and their drinking water. Many members of the community suffered the health effects of the chemicals, including birth defects and cancer.
Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are harmful man-made chemicals that have infected much of the drinking water in the nation. This started when Du Pont began using the chemicals in Teflon products, mostly pans and cookware. Upon the success of Teflon, many other companies began using them in other products, such as rain jackets and stain-resistant furniture.
Environmental Studies department chair Nora Traviss expressed her concern at the lack of action being taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the chemicals present in drinking water.
“Last week the EPA has pushed off any regulatory decision-making in establishing a safe drinking water level for the country, there’s only an advisory level for seven parts per trillion. That really makes it incumbent upon the states to take action,” Traviss said.
Since the EPA only has an advisory out right now, that also means that it is not protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Cities are not currently required to test for PFAS chemicals.
However, one state that has already taken action against unsafe drinking water is New Jersey. According to Messmer, New Jersey did a scientific analysis of those chemical levels. The state arrived at standards ten times lower than the EPA advisory.
“An arm of the CDC had been suppressed in issuing information that they had that EPA standards are seven to eleven times higher than they should be. Scientists now say there is no safe level. One part per trillion still causes health outcomes like is seen in the film,” Messmer said.
Vice President and Director for the Conservation Law Foundation of New Hampshire Tom Irwin was also present for the question and answer portion of the screening. Irwin stated how rare it is to be talking about chemical levels in terms of parts per trillion, that it’s usually parts per billion or million, to put in perspective the danger of PFAS.
“The unfortunate reality is the cat is out of the bag,” Irwin said. “Most of us have had these chemicals in our blood already, and that’s just this class of chemicals, not to mention the others that are out there.”
These chemicals may have already had a large impact on New Hampshire. Messmer was one of the first people to bring attention to a pediatric cancer cluster on the seacoast of New Hampshire where children with rare types of cancer had died.
“Through her [Messmer’s] actions the CDC has declared a five town area on the seacoast with a double cancer cluster,” Traviss said. “The issue we’re seeing here in the film is also important here in New Hampshire.”
In early January, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) proposed new maximum contamination level (MCLs) for PFAS. These MCLs were not in line with what is scientifically proven to be safe.
Messmer and Irwin urged those who opposed this proposal to sign the petition to adopt safe drinking water standards at The Action Network’s website under “PFAS Rule Making Petition.” Those opposed can also contact key legislators to voice their opinions. Letters can be sent to legislators by going to The Action Network’s website and visiting “Support SB287 PFAS Limits in Drinking Water.”
“Essential to all of this is the cautionary approach,” Irwin said. “We need to reduce unnecessary exposure to chemicals like this.”
Rachel Vitello can be contacted at