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With No PFOA Testing in N.H., Labs Send Flood of Water Samples Out of State

Flickr/Håkan Dahlström

With concern growing about the chemical known as PFOA contaminating drinking water systems in southern New Hampshire, residents are now looking for ways to test their own water.

State environmental officials are testing private wells near the Saint-Gobain plastics plant in Merrimack, but many outside that one-mile radius want to know if their water is safe to drink.

It turns out, however, there are no labs here in New Hampshire that test for the chemical, which some studies have linked to certain types of cancer.

Still, there are labs here in the Granite State working with residents on collecting water samples and getting PFOA testing done out of state.

That’s been keeping Nelson Analytical Lab in Manchester busy. Andrew Nelson is owner and laboratory director there, and he joined NHPR’s Morning Edition.

News first broke about this PFOA water contamination issue about a month ago. What have you seen since then?

Since that point, we’ve definitely seen a lot of concern, especially from the areas of Merrimack, Bedford and Litchfield, of course. We’ve seen an increasing level of concern from homeowners and residents of those areas that has been on the uptick for the last three or four weeks.

When you say an uptick, what do you mean?

A couple weeks ago when this first broke, we were getting a few calls a day. That’s increased to right now between 20-25 calls a day at least with concerns over PFOA. We are seeing concerns from areas nowhere near those towns, so this has certainly increased awareness about this particular chemical throughout the whole region. We’re getting calls from all over the state.

Of course, this is a chemical that’s come on peoples’ radar and anyone who has done water sample testing before this wasn’t testing for this chemical, correct?

A couple weeks ago when this first broke, we were getting a few calls a day. That's increased to between 20 to 25 calls a day at least with concerns over PFOA.

No, they weren’t and that’s a common question. We do thousands and thousands of private water tests throughout New Hampshire every year. Unfortunately, the nature of testing for this chemical is much different than testing for routine well contaminants such as arsenic and radon.

Can you give us an idea of the timeline for testing? Where does it go and how much does it cost?

There are only a handful of laboratories really throughout the whole country that are performing this type of analysis. So what we and New Hampshire DES are doing is taking samples in and subcontracting to laboratories that provide this specialty test. We are using a laboratory down in Connecticut. The cost of analysis is $200, which is enough for us to cover the cost of shipping and handling the sample and that’s about it. Turnaround time on this is two to three weeks, which is the other concern. This isn’t something that people can give us a sample of today and know within a day or two what their results are. Once we get the sample, it’s a few weeks before they know the answer.

And I’d imagine the wait times at these few labs that do PFOA testing across the country could get longer as we hear about more testing being done.

I think that’s inevitable. The few labs that were set up to do this are certainly being inundated for the first time I’m sure ever with this particular analysis, so I can’t imagine they’re going to be able to maintain the same turnaround time and level of service.

Have you got any results back yet?

We have not. We are anxiously awaiting our first round of results. We’ve received between 60 to 70 water samples that are currently in process of being tested, but we did not begin receiving actual samples until within the past couple of weeks. And because the test takes two to three weeks, we haven’t seen any come back yet. And I’m sure there are – between us, other laboratories and the state of New Hampshire – there must be hundreds and hundreds of samples that are still in process right now that are pending results.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Michael serves as NHPR's Program Director. Michael came to NHPR in 2012, working as the station's newscast producer/reporter. In 2015, he took on the role of Morning Edition producer. Michael worked for eight years at The Telegraph of Nashua, covering education and working as the metro editor.

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