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Residents Claim Ivy League College Polluted Water With Dead Lab Rodents

Burial of lab animals in the ‘60s and ‘70s have been linked to groundwater contamination in Hanover, New Hampshire

Thousands of lab rodents disposed of at Dartmouth College are being blamed for radioactive contaminations and carcinogens in local groundwater. (dra_schwartz/iStock)
smithsonian.com

For decades, Rennie Farm at Dartmouth College looked like a scenic meadow—nothing more. But in the last few years, something surprising has been uncovered: thousands of lab rodent and even human remains from experiments and medical classes. The carcasses were buried there during the 1960s and 1970s when such disposal methods were common. Now, reports the Associated Press, local residents are locked in a battle with the college over claims that contaminants from the burials have tainted their groundwater.

During a site cleanup by Dartmouth in 2011, the AP reports, hazardous waste and radioactive materials were found along with evidence that led to the discovery of a carcinogen leaking into the groundwater. Nearby residents now claim that tainted groundwater has compromised both their health and property values and want the college to go further to compensate them.

As Rob Wolfe reports for Valley News, the controversy over Rennie Farm began in 2010, when Dartmouth reportedly decided to sell the property. To prepare the site, they began exhuming the waste, but they found more than they expected. Along with the carcasses, the college discovered everything from syringes and glassware to broken containers of noxious-smelling fluid.

The college also discovered something else: 1,4-dioxane. The substance is an industrial chemical and environmental contaminant that is used to stabilize some solvents. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the substance can leach into groundwater and biodegrades slowly. It is also a likely carcinogen that can cause kidney and liver damage. On its website, Dartmouth states that it found the substance exceeding federal standards in at least one private well. In response, the college installed water treatment systems, offered to relocate the family, and provided them with bottled water.

How did 1,4-dioxane and radioactive materials make their way into the ground in the first place? The answer lies in the thousands of lab rodents researchers at the college used in experiments to determine how radioactive material moves through the animals. As Wolfe reports, scintillation fluid—a chemical cocktail that is mixed with radioactive material to allow researchers to determine radioactivity—was found at the site during the cleanup. The burial pits were unlined, which allowed these chemicals to seep into the groundwater.

Dartmouth is far from the only research institution to use lab animals in its experiments. According to the USDA, which regulates animal research in the United States under the Animal Welfare Act, over 8,000 hamsters and 14,000 guinea pigs were used in animal experiments in 2015 alone. But during the days that Dartmouth used Rennie Farm as a burial site, many of those regulations simply didn't exist.

Today, researchers must dispose of lab animals using containment practices specifically designed to keep radioactivity or harmful chemicals out of groundwater. They must also treat their lab animals with a minimum standard of humane treatment—in part because of animal welfare regulations that came during the time Dartmouth was experimenting on and burying lab animals. In 1966, a LIFE Magazine piece on kidnapped dogs that were in turn used as lab animals outraged Americans, leading to congressional hearings and widespread legislation regulating treatment of lab animals. Today, researchers must adhere to a number of legal and professional standards when handling lab animals and their remains.

The current conflict isn’t the first to emerge over hazardous waste from scientific experiments of the past. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, for example, is a superfund site due to the disposal of rocket propellants and lab waste, and contaminated water in the area. In 1997, the lab was sued by local residents who alleged that the contamination had given them cancer. 

Dartmouth College says it has the same goals as the people who live near Rennie Farm. “We want to protect the health of our neighbors and maintain the value of their properties,” reads a statement on the school’s website about the cleanup. The college claims it’s cooperating with local residents, but for those who were potentially exposed to carcinogenic chemicals in their groundwater, that assistance may come too late.

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