The site has contaminated the well water of at least one family, that of
Richard and Debbie Higgins, who blame a variety of health problems on it,
including rashes, hair and skin loss and dizziness. Even their dogs were not
spared, they say, with one urinating blood and another vomiting.
"We have been drinking the water for years and we had no idea, absolutely no
idea," Debbie Higgins said.
Few nearby residents even knew the half-acre plot on the college's Rennie
Farm was used from the 1960s until 1978 to dump carcasses from "tracer
experiments," in which scientists used radioactive compounds to see how things
moved through life systems. A nearby site also contained remains of human
cadavers and stillborn fetuses used in medical classes.
The obscurity of the fenced site changed in 2011, when Dartmouth chose to
clean it up, removing 40 tons of carcasses and soil from scores of unlined pits
that were legal at the time they were dug. That led to the discovery of
hazardous waste and low-level radioactive materials and eventually evidence that
at least one chemical used in the animal experiments, the suspected carcinogen
1,4-dioxane, had leaked into the groundwater.
It was initially found at 50 times the state standard of 3 parts per billion
on the site and more recently as high as 600 parts per billion in the ground.
The chemical has been linked to eye, nose and throat irritation and, in
long-term exposure, to liver and kidney damage, according to the Environmental
The 1,4-dioxane was eventually found to have migrated off the site and
contaminated the Higginses' well across the street, about 800 feet from the
site— at twice the state standard. They learned in September 2015 that their
well was polluted, and now depend on bottled water supplied by Dartmouth for
cooking and drinking.
The news has rattled the semi-rural neighborhood, sparking anger and fear
among dozens of homeowners who worry the plume will reach their own wells and
damage their property values. Many contend Dartmouth was too slow to respond
once it found the contamination and has been reluctant to provide full details
of what was on the site—something the college denies.
"Right now, everyone is very confused and concerned," said Ellen Waitzkin, a
radiologist who lives across from the site. "They are trying to determine on
what basis they should feel threatened or not."
The Higginses and other residents argue an alert about the spreading
contamination should have gone out earlier. New Hampshire environmental and
Dartmouth officials said initial test showed the levels of 1,4-dioxane were
declining on the site and were projected to remain on the farm site—though state
officials now concede there could have been more aggressive monitoring.
Now, Dartmouth is working to regain the trust of Higgins and the other
residents. It apologized in September for its handling of the case, established
a neighborhood advisory panel and sampled 110 drinking wells in the
neighborhood; no others have tested positive. It also offered 20 households
It is also finishing construction on a system at the dump site to capture and
clean the contaminated water. When it begins operating in January, wells will
pull contaminated groundwater into the system and filter it. The treated water
will then be returned to the ground, a process that could take several
"We are committed to protecting the health of our neighbors, addressing their
concerns, and communicating regularly and openly with them about the project,"
college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said of the cleanup, which so far has cost
But for the Higginses and their neighbors, the college hasn't gone far
enough. Some want more soil removed, while others want Dartmouth to offer
compensation for their deteriorating property values—demands the college says it
The Higginses say their health problems have mostly disappeared since they
switched to bottled water. But they call that a short-term fix and want the
college to move them to a new home a safe distance from the site of the
"We want to become whole if there is such a thing," Richard Higgins said. "We
want to get on with our lives. Right now, our life is in limbo."