'No Causal Link?': MTBE's Long Legacy in Pascoag

Editor's note: Ten years ago last month, the water supply in the village of Pascoag, in the town of Burrillville, was contaminated by the now-banned gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a petroleum byproduct that replaced lead in gasoline as an oxygenating agent. Many gasoline companies termed it an “anti-knocking agent.” The petrochemical has been shown to cause cancer in rodents. As of 2007, it had been banned — partially or fully — in 24 states, including Rhode Island.

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PASCOAG, R.I. — Stating accurately that available science doesn't show a causal link between MTBE exposure and any immediate or persistent health effects, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Judith Colenback Savage dismissed any claims of immediate physical harm or latent medical problems concerning residents’ exposure to the volatile organic compound in 2001.

As with most of the 80,000 chemicals that Americans can be exposed to on any given day, few scientific studies have been done on possible side effects of MTBE exposure.

That lack of even a causal link is no comfort to Norman and Margaret Desjarlais. In addition to the skin rashes, chemical burns and difficulty breathing that the couple endured during the initial contamination, a host of medical problems — including multiple sclerosis and several types of cancer — have plagued the couple since fall 2001.

“We (the Pascoag Utility District) used to win all kind of awards for our drinking water. It tasted great,” said Norman Desjarlais, who has lived in Pascoag since 1969. But that all changed a decade ago, and according to Desjarlais, well before the Sept. 4, 2001 state Department of Health (DOH) order to limit exposure to the well water.

Most residents of the hamlet that ecoRI News spoke to for this four-part series are convinced that the contamination began in May or June of that year. Desjarlais, who claims a hypersensitive sense of smell and taste, said he noticed something off in the water "well before September, and even before May and June of that year. It’s ridiculous to think that that level of contamination happened overnight.”

The initial response to the contamination was a mess, according to Desjarlais. “They were just throwing cases of bottled water on people's lawns. People were leaving those cases on their lawns. The town looked like a war zone.”

As for the immediate health effects from MTBE contamination, the Desjarlais’ complaints sound like most other residents’.  “Even the slightest scratch would burn like hell when you were showering," Desjarlais said. "Blurred vision, difficulty breathing. We had all of that.”

In the past 10 years, Norman Desjarlais has fought kidney, prostate and skin cancer. The skin cancer has returned to have another go at his life.

Sadly, the isolated case of a man who is particularly prone to cancer this is not. “Every household on our street has lost a family member to some weird, oddball cancer or had bouts with weird cancers,” he said. “If you look at it statistically, something is wrong here. Brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, the list goes on and on.”

Also, this rash of “oddball” cancers isn’t the only seemingly statistically anomalous health crisis in town. Since the initial contamination, it seems a disproportionate segment of then and current Pascoag Utility District customers have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), including Margaret Desjarlais.

Even though PUD customers now buy well water from the neighboring Harrisville Fire District — at over double the price that most public water users in Rhode Island pay — Norman Desjarlais still refuses to drink from tap in Pascoag.

“The water still stinks to high heaven. We get these water reports that show the tap water as just barely under the federal guidelines for a whole bunch of substances. Do you know what the acceptable level of lead in my water is for me,” Desjarlais asks rhetorically, holding his hand up to make the "goose egg," "zero.”

Despite a seemingly endless list of health problems that he claims were caused by the now-decade-old MTBE spill, toward the end of the interview, Desjarlais put his own problems aside and began to speak rather fervently about the condition and mistreatment of Burrillville’s Wallum Lake.

“We have what used to be the cleanest body of fresh water in the state," he said. "Zamborano Hospital used to pump its water right from the lake.”

An avid fisherman, he was relegated to fishing from the shore this opening day because, in his words, “You could walk across the lake on all the boats. There is supposed to be an engine size limit on the lake that isn’t being enforced. We have what looks like commercial fishing boats on our lake. There is gas being spilled everywhere. It is a mess,” Desjarlais said.