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On The Presidential Campaign Trail, N.H. PFAS Activists Give—And Get—Attention

Annie Ropeik
New Hampshire state Rep. Wendy Thomas, left, talks with Democratic presidential candidate Marrianne Williamson about PFAS chemicals in Merrimack.

New Hampshire is at the forefront of a growing debate over PFAS chemical contamination in drinking water. And many of the Democrats campaigning to win the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary are taking notice.

They’re using the issue to connect with a highly engaged block of potential Granite State voters – and local PFAS activists are welcoming the attention.

They include a group of women from the town of Merrimack, who won seats in New Hampshire’s state legislature last year. 

These legislators called themselves "water warriors" – ready to push for reform, after the Saint Gobain plastics factory in their town contaminated their water with harmful PFAS chemicals.

Less than a year into the water warriors’ first term, they’re back on the campaign trail – this time, inviting all the candidates for president to come talk about PFAS in New Hampshire. 

Many, like Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, are taking them up on it

“If a family doesn’t have access to clean water, it changes everything," Gillibrand said at her roundtable with the water warriors and other advocates in Portsmouth earlier this year. "And this is an issue that is crippling communities all over the country.”

Credit Sara Ernst / NHPR
Massachusetts Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Seth Moulton talks with voters about PFAS in Merrimack, with local state Rep. Nancy Murphy (in white, at left).

Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton also took up the water warriors’ invitation a few weeks ago. 

He got a crash course from state Rep. Wendy Thomas in the chemistry of PFAS, which was a key ingredient until the mid-2000s in brands like Teflon and Goretex.

"So what, as a practical matter, happens if – I mean, what are people going to use for nonstick surfaces and whatnot?" Moulton asked. 

"I tell everyone, get out your grandmother’s cast-iron pans," said Thomas. "They worked then, they work now.”

PFAS doesn’t break down in nature and builds up in the body, so it’s nearly ubiquitous in people’s blood, and in many drinking water supplies. 

It’s also been linked even at low levels to a range of deadly health problems - especially high cholesterol, kidney and liver problems, developmental delays and reproductive issues, as well as, potentially, certain types of cancer. 

That’s created a lot of fear and calls for action in affected areas. And these campaign stops have given voters like state Rep. Suzanne Vail of Nashua a chance to demand answers from the candidates:

"As a president, would you be able to take executive action? What would you be able to do?" Vail asked Moulton at his event. 

"Well, there are a lot of different things we could do," Moulton said. He'd focus on Congress, for one thing, and try to hold polluters accountable. 

That’s also happening at the state level. New Hampshire is the latest to sue the makers of PFAS for water contamination.

And it's one of only a few states writing its own drinking water limits for PFAS. The latest proposals, released in late June, would be among the strictest in the nation.

Activists like the water warriors want to see the next president support similar, stricter regulation at the federal level.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
New Hampshire PFAS activists hold signs outside an Environmental Protection Agency forum on the issue last summer in Exeter.

"We need advocates, people to listen, and I think this is the first step," says state Rep. Nancy Murphy, who also attended the roundtable with Moulton. 

She says this isn’t just about the campaigns – but the people watching them.

“Our goal is to educate as many people as we can – raise that awareness," Murphy says. "By having the presidential candidates come here, that helps do that as well.”

It’s an example of how activists like Murphy can leverage the attention that comes with living in the state that hosts the first presidential primary.

And the candidates benefit too – they get a ready-made audience to hear their stump speech, without any legwork by their campaigns.

Another candidate joined the water warriors in Merrimack just a few days after Moulton – the author and California Democrat Marianne Williamson. 

Williamson tied PFAS to lots of other parts of her platform – like food and drug laws, health care and economic reform.

“As long as corporate money has the kind of nefarious influence on our political system that it has, we’re in trouble," Williamson said. "That’s the cancer underlying all the other cancers.”

Advocates like Rep. Wendy Thomas see those connections too. Thomas says her home’s well in Merrimack is contaminated with PFAS. But she’s just outside the area where Saint Gobain, the factory that caused the pollution, paid to connect affected families to clean public water.

Thomas says her family was able to afford a filtration system, but she knows not every family is so lucky.

“They’re being injured because they don’t have the money," she says. "And that ties back to minimum wage, and it ties back to health care. Guess what – PFAS is a pre-existing condition.”

Regardless of who makes it to the general election, Thomas hopes the primary campaign will show candidates her issue is one they can run on anywhere.

NHPR's Sara Ernst and Todd Bookman contributed reporting to this story.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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