Messmer: NH's highest-in-the-nation cancer rates should spark action, not doubt

New Hampshire citizens experience some of the highest cancer rates in the country. But when scientists talk about cancer in terms of statistics, we risk depersonalizing the tragedy each family faces when their child, family member, or close friend is diagnosed with cancer. Each cancer or mortality statistic represents one life and countless others impacted by the diagnosis.

Mindi Messmer
Mindi Messmer

I know what a cancer diagnosis means to a family. It’s devastating. It turns your whole world upside down. You become consumed with endless doctor visits, comprehending the meaning of test results, and making decisions you never thought you would have to make while trying to be strong for other family members.

In 2014, when I identified and reported high rates of children with cancer in my town, I had no idea that my advocacy and policy efforts would become directly relevant to my family. Two years later, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) designated the first double cancer cluster in NH history in children in a five-town area of the Seacoast.

In 2018, the CDC announced that children in New Hampshire experienced the highest rate of cancer in the nation between 2013 and 2018.  I am aware of three additional childhood cancer cases in just the last few months: two in Rye and one in Portsmouth.

“How many children with cancer are too many?”


In 2019, I was thrilled that according to press coverage, the governor planned to “use surplus funds” to investigate the high rates of pediatric cancer, calling it a “serious issue.” However, when I thanked him for his attention to the matter just after the announcement, he told me he didn’t believe New Hampshire has the highest childhood cancer rate in the country. I was dumbfounded. How could he disagree with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) study?

Almost four years have now passed and $400K likely has been spent on a state-sponsored study that concluded there’s nothing to see here. Rather than a careful and transparent analysis of where the children with cancer live and what could be contributing factors (termed small area effects), the taxpayer-funded report deviated from conventional statistical thresholds to conclude that the number of New Hampshire children with cancer isn’t really that bad.

It was shocking to see it in black and white.

We could not stay silent so we raised our concerns in a letter that was published on Jan. 9.

Many factors contribute to cancer, including tobacco, obesity, air pollution, and contaminated drinking water. We know children are not little adults; they are more vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures, especially during important developmental stages. Let’s eliminate as many environmental exposures as possible that we know, or suspect contribute to cancer, to save families from the tragedy and despair of a cancer diagnosis.

We must shift from a regulatory paradigm of denial, obfuscation, inaction and “wait-and-see” incrementalism that favors industry and polluters to a precautionary and proactive approach that protects the rest of us. As Bill Couzens, founder of Less Cancer says, if you see the forest fire burning you don’t need every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed before you act.

In the last few years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has caught up with scientists like me who said there was no safe level of Teflon chemicals (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances or “PFAS”) to drink in our water. In June of 2022, EPA lowered its health advisory by a factor of 100,000 for PFOA, one of the almost 21,000,000 PFAS chemicals known to exist. EPA stated that “health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero.”

People in southern New Hampshire are already suffering high rates of bladder, colon, esophageal, thyroid, prostate, and kidney cancers. New Hampshire women suffer the highest rates of breast cancer in the nation, place third in the nation to Kentucky and West Virginia for all-cause cancers and rank eighth for lung and bronchial cancers. New Hampshire ranks within the top 10 in the nation for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Exposure to environmental toxins is known or suspected to increase the risk of developing each of these cancers.

Informed by science and knowledge of cancer and chronic disease impacts across New Hampshire, our state led the nation by regulating PFAS, arsenic, and lead exposure due to legislation I sponsored as a state representative to reduce cancer and chronic disease.

It's time for elected officials, regulators, and water purveyors in Rye, and other cities and towns across New Hampshire to continue to lead and stop being penny-wise and pound-foolish. With the highest rates of childhood and other cancers in the nation, as water consumers, we want clean, safe drinking water and air and our elected officials, water distributors, and regulatory agencies to act.

Mindi Messmer is a mom, wife, scientist, author, and former New Hampshire House representative from Rye.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Messmer: NH's highest-in-the-nation cancer rates require action