Fifty-Year-Old Lab Waste A Major Headache for Dartmouth College

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I am lucky enough to spend the holidays in one of the most beautiful places in the United States - the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Surrounded by stunning natural beauty on all sides - it is incredibly cold, the roads are covered in ice, and the living is uncomplicated. But, when something does happen - such as 50-year-old toxic waste from the ivy league institution down the road creeping into people's backyards - it is big (BIG) news up here.

And, that is exactly the story that the neighbors of Dartmouth College are trying to bring everyone's attention.

My first experience in a lab was also at an ivy league institution, and stories were commonly shared by senior faculty about the 'good old days' in the 60s and 70s when they would smoke cigars in the lab. But, nowhere in these nostalgic walks down memory lane did anyone mention disposing lab animals in the neighboring fields. But, it seems that, at Dartmouth, they used to do just that - dumping the carcasses of lab animals that had been used in experiments in an area on campus called 'Rennie Farm’ from the 1960s to 1978.

The problem that has come back to haunt Dartmouth is that the lab animals had been used in experiments that involved chemicals and radioactive materials. The burial area is now known as the 'Rennie Farm Lab Waste Dump Site,' and while the bodies have decomposed, the chemicals from them seem to be seeping out of the area - potentially contaminating the drinking water of neighbors.  

Now, 60 years later, people living in the area are concerned and want information which they claim that Dartmouth has been slow to provide. And, it’s hard to know, without that information, how big of a deal this is.

The primary cause of concern seems to be a chemical called 1,4 dioxane (commonly referred to as just dioxane.) Although dioxane sounds terrible, and ingesting it is something that should be avoided, it is a relatively common pollutant found in the ground surrounding landfills and Superfund sites in NH and has been found to contaminate drinking water in the past. Note that dioxane should not be confused with dioxin which is the chemical found in agent orange - the two are unrelated. Dioxane is found in paint strippers, dyes, antifreeze and de-icing solutions (see my opening paragraph to get a sense of how much of this there is floating around the area) and even shampoos, detergents, and deodorants. The U.S. Organic Consumers Association found dioxane present in roughly half of the organic personal-care products that they tested. The bottom line is that dioxane is just about everywhere and is simply not that toxic. It is classified by IARC as a Group 2B chemical in relation to its carcinogenicity which puts it in the lower risk category. (1) 

That being said, ingesting water in an area where levels are high can cause illness. Dioxane poisoning leads to symptoms such as eye, nose and throat irritation, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, brain swelling, liver dysfunction, drowsiness, and unconsciousness. 

And, the site has recorded levels of dioxane at 150 parts per billion (ppb) which is 50 times the state standard and, in one area, as high as 600 ppb. So, the sleepless nights of Dartmouth’s neighbors may be warranted. But, what really matters is how much dioxane is in the drinking water, and that number seems hard to find.

One family's well was found so contaminated that it was deemed unusable. This particular family, the Higgins, have become the poster children for this scandal claiming that both they and their pets fell ill - linking that illness to their drinking water (reporting rashes, hair and skin loss and dizziness for themselves and vomiting and blood in the urine for their pets.) They also say that they have started to feel better while relying on the bottled water provided by Dartmouth College. On top of being very outspoken, the Higgins’ have also initiated legal action against Dartmouth for both toxic exposure and diminution of property value. The Higgins feel it is significant that they found out in September of 2015 of the toxic state of their well - much later than when feel they could have been notified.

In a letter written in August to NH state and government officials, the ‘neighbor petition’ indicates that Dartmouth's neighbors are upset -  to put it lightly. In the letter, they make it clear that Dartmouth’s response has been inadequate, and fall just short of accusing them of covering up a toxic situation. In their response to a letter sent by Dartmouth to the people living in and around Rennie Farm, they wrote, "We are concerned that such language, when conveyed to the general non-scientific and trusting public, may mislead some readers into believing that the soils surrounding test wells, and the remaining buried laboratory bagged experimental animal and any associated chemical waste, are not associated with any risk to the health and safety of our neighborhood."

Because of the growing concern, the community wants more action and lists six specific actions that they would like Dartmouth to take. (2) Dartmouth did perform an excavation of the area in November of 2011, cleaning up the remains and removing the soil from the area. However, the excavation was not complete as carcasses were found buried in the area in June 2016.  

Even though the town and gown relations are damaged, the nearby residents cannot claim that Dartmouth is doing nothing. It has, since the time of their August letter, not only apologized for its handling of the case but established a neighborhood advisory panel, sampled 110 drinking wells in the community (none tested positive) and offered bottled water to 20 households. (It should be noted that bottled water is not routinely tested for dioxane.) Lastly, it has constructed a system at the dump site to capture and clean the contaminated water that is due to start working next month. But for the Higgins’ and the other neighbors who are worried about their property value and their health, it may be ‘too little - too late’ from Dartmouth.


(1) IARC classifications: 

Group 1 Carcinogenic to humans 119 agents
Group 2A Probably carcinogenic to humans   81
Group 2B         Possibly carcinogenic to humans 292
Group 3 Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans             505
Group 4 Probably not carcinogenic to humans     1


(2) The six actions that the community would like for Dartmouth to take.

  1. There must be prompt, complete excavation and removal, down to the bedrock level if necessary, of all contents (including all contaminated soils) of the entire dump site area
  2. Complete excavation and removal of all human and animal remains and all associated radioactive and toxic contamination currently buried on site, with testing for both chemical and radioactive contamination, and re-location of all currently buried contents to a secure and properly licensed treatment or disposal facility.
  3. Complete characterization of contaminated groundwater zones should be performed as soon as possible
  4. Establish a system of perimeter monitoring wells that encompass the entire boundaries of Rennie Farm, for long-term monitoring to assure that no further remedial measures are required.
  5. Establish a robust periodic testing program of all area residential wells for all of the toxic carcinogenic chemicals documented to have been present
  6. We ask that a public meeting be held immediately to discuss plans for the above-noted action, and that a schedule of follow-up public meetings be set to monitor progress.