Potential Cancer Cluster at Littleton Dept. of Health and Human Services, Letters Reveal (2024)

By ANI FREEDMAN, InDepthNH.org

LITTLETON, N.H. – Nine employees at a Littleton Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) office have been diagnosed with cancer, prompting a cancer cluster investigation into the potential causes for their illnesses, according to letters shared with InDepthNH.org. The cause of their cancer remains unknown, but employees voiced their concerns with the building’s safety to the state.

On April 8, twelve staff members signed a letter addressed to the Safety Committee, the Department of Labor, and the State Employees Association (the state’s labor union). They voiced their “deep apprehension about the health and safety conditions within our workplace,” citing nine staff members with cancer diagnoses. The nine diagnosed either currently work or recently worked at the Littleton office, according to the letter. There are 44 employees in the Littleton office.

“This has raised serious questions about the environment we work in,” their letter read. “The prevalence is startling.”

Employees called for the building to be completely shut down until they are assured of its safety with a “thorough investigation.” Their request for the building’s closure was denied, according to the NH DHHS’ letter in response.

They proposed several other immediate actions on the part of the state in addition to the office’s closure, including remote work arrangements, a Department of Labor investigation, and transparent communication. They asked for the investigation to include a “comprehensive assessment” of the office premises, including tests for “air quality, water quality, mold, radiation, potential carcinogens, and any other factors that may contribute to health risks.”

“We are collectively asking for immediate action to alleviate the reasonable concerns for safety and health of the staff and vulnerable populations of the general public that visit this facility,” the employees wrote.

On April 12, David Wieters, Chief Operating Officer of DHHS, responded to the issue in another letter to the employees’ union representative, Nathaniel St. Laurent.

“We take this matter very seriously and will act accordingly,” Wieters wrote.

He stated that the department intended to meet with the Littleton office’s landlord to document and review any and all tests already in place at the location, including the air quality assessment performed on occupancy, asbestos certifications, and water testing results.

Wieters also looped in the DHHS Public Health Cancer program, which will research the cancers and risk factors to determine if additional investigation is warranted and initiate the official cancer cluster investigation protocol.

He pointed out that in order to proceed with the employees’ concerns, the state needs “the individuals with cancer diagnosis to reach out to the Cancer Program.” Wieters maintained that the program is designed to protect the privacy and security of the information each individual shares.

“After the pertinent details are gathered,” the letter reads, “the Program can research cancers and risk factors and determine whether additional investigation is warranted.” The state did not answer InDepthNH.org’s question of whether or not the investigation will move forward even if not all diagnosed employees contact the Cancer Program.

In their initial request from April 8, employees asked the state to transfer all non-essential personnel to remote work “as much as possible” while a “thorough investigation” was conducted with a “minimum skeleton crew on-site to handle essential tasks that cannot be managed remotely.”

At the end of the letter, Wieters told employees that the building would remain open. Remote work, he said, would be approved if requests complied with the department’s telework policy.

As of now, DHHS maintains that all necessary testing meets “protective regulatory standards,” Director of Communications Jake Leon wrote in an email to InDepthNH.org.

In his response, Leon wrote:

“DHHS leadership has taken several steps to address the concerns. To date, water, mold and air quality tests have been conducted. At this time, current test results indicate that the water and air quality in the DO meet protective regulatory standards and there are no mold concerns. The building was constructed in the mid-1980s, so it is free of asbestos.

“DHHS has met with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) about the concerns raised by staff. DHHS has also provided information on how individuals with a cancer diagnosis can contact the NH Cancer Program. The NH Cancer Program analyzes any information received from individuals and reviews the scientific literature to determine whether any known environmental exposures are associated with reported cancer types.

“The Department will communicate new information to the DO staff as they continue to meet the needs of those we serve.”

The state would not share the details of those air and water quality test results.

The state agreed that “the number of individuals diagnosed is concerning” in its April 12 letter.

Ani Freedman is a recent graduate from Columbia Journalism School with a passion for environmental, health, and accountability reporting. In her free time, she’s an avid runner and run coach. She can be reached atanifreedmanpress@gmail.com.

Potential Cancer Cluster at Littleton Dept. of Health and Human Services, Letters Reveal (2024)

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