How New Hampshire residents can ensure their drinking water is safe

How New Hampshire residents can ensure their drinking water is safe

Man pouring water into glass in kitchen, closeup (Photo via Shutterstock)

By Stacy Milbouer

November 13, 2023

Remember back in 2016 when high levels of PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances)—also known as “forever chemicals”—were found in hundreds of wells in and around Merrimack?  

A report released earlier this year from the State Department of Health and Human Services found “a higher-than-expected number of people with kidney and renal cancers in Merrimack between 2009 and 2018 than would typically be observed in a town of similar size in the state” and that “blood serum levels of one PFAS chemical was more than two times higher than the national level.”

That’s not too surprising: Research shows PFAS chemicals are linked to certain types of cancer, low birth weight, thyroid and liver problems, and depressed immune systems. According to a CDC fact sheet, PFAS never break down in the environment, can seep through soil, contaminate drinking water, and can accumulate in fish and wildlife.

It’s since been determined that those chemicals came from Paris-based Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics company, which used the chemicals in the manufacture of fire and chemical-resistant materials used in items like hazmat suits. The facility has since closed.

The Merrimack story is just one high-profile instance of tap water found to be contaminated with PFAS. Earlier this year, a US Geological Survey found that at least 45% of the nation’s tap water is estimated to have one or more of these illness-inducing chemicals.

If you’re concerned about your family’s risk of exposure, one thing you can do is get your water tested. 

Nearly half of New Hampshire residents get their water from private wells, which aren’t regulated like public water systems. Testing for those private water sources is the sole responsibility of the homeowner.

The State Department of Environmental Services oversees public water systems using federal standards to test drinking water, but for those using private wells, it’s a different story.

The department estimates half of the state’s bedrock wells have radon at levels of concern, and 30% have arsenic at levels higher than those acceptable for public water systems. The department urges those with private wells to test their water every three to five years, and those buying new houses with private wells to test before buying. That testing comes out of their own pockets. 

There are three ways well water can be tested:

  1. Testing at the state Water Analysis Laboratory, which provides a comprehensive assessment for $85 – $105 depending on the type of well.
  2. Testing through commercial laboratories which can range from $20 for basic strips to test for lead, to full lab analyses which are available in the $180 – $500 range. The Department of Environmental Services has a list of state-accredited labs on its website.
  3. Home test kits can also be purchased at stores or online for $20 for a basic lead test strip to $200 – $500 for comprehensive kits.

The Department of Environmental Services has an online guide explaining well-water testing. It points out that unhealthy levels of contaminants “are common in many private wells in New Hampshire …  some have been linked to cancer and other diseases. Most have no taste, smell, or color.” One in five of those wells contains arsenic, and arsenic can cause severe health problems in babies. Low-income pregnant women in the state can get free, private well testing through the state WIC (Women Infant & Children) program.

New Hampshire, like some other states, has begun regulating PFAS on their own, “under pressure to do so from both its citizens and media,” according to an article in the New Hampshire Law Review. In 2020, the state passed legislation that sets maximum levels of PFAS in drinking water and set aside $50 million of state funds for cleaning up sites contaminated by the “forever chemicals.”


  • Stacy Milbouer

    Stacy Milbouer is an award-winning journalist and has covered New Hampshire for many publications including the Boston Globe, New Hampshire Magazine, and the Nashua Telegraph.

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