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Action urged on NH’s highest-in-nation child cancer rate

PORTSMOUTH — The state’s congressional delegation is calling for the Trump administration to find out what is making New Hampshire children sick in light of a recent report indicating the state has the highest pediatric cancer rate in the country.

The recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report states that between 2003 and 2014, New Hampshire had 205 pediatric cancer cases per 1,000,000 in the population.

The report by the CDC comes after the state Department of Health and Human Services confirmed in February 2016 that it had identified a cancer cluster on the Seacoast involving two rare pediatric cancers, leading to the deaths of several area children.

“We are extremely troubled by this finding and write to request information on actions by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and relevant subagencies that have been taken recently or are in progress to examine the underlying factors, including environmental contamination, that are contributing to high pediatric cancer rates in New Hampshire and other states,” the delegation wrote about the CDC report in a letter to Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The delegation also pointed to their concerns about the impact that exposure to PFAS chemicals in drinking water could “have on the health and well-being of Granite Staters.”

“We were alarmed by findings in a draft toxicological study recently published by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which suggested that exposure to certain PFAS chemicals may leave children susceptible to immune system damage, which could play a detrimental role in the human body’s ability to fight off cell infections that cause diseases including cancers,” U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, along with U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster, said in the letter to Azar.

Thousands of people working at Pease International Tradeport, along with children and infants who attended two day-care centers there, were exposed to multiple PFAS chemicals from contaminated water in the city-owned Haven well.

Officials believe the PFAS came from firefighting foam used at the former Air Force base, which is a Superfund cleanup site. Portsmouth shut down the well in May 2014 after the Air Force found high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, in the well.

The EPA in May 2016 set permanent health advisories for PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA at 70 parts per trillion. It has not set any other health advisories for the thousands of other PFAS chemicals, which advocates suspect are no less dangerous than PFOS and PFOA.

Pointing to the “enormous stakes connected to identifying the root causes of rising pediatric cancer rates,” the delegation asked for Azar to provide “any information specific to contributing factors to pediatric cancers in New Hampshire that may differ from contributing factors in other states.”

In addition, the delegation wants to know about any action plans by the department “to address contributing factors related to pediatric cancer rates in states like New Hampshire.”

“We also request that the Department provide briefings for the New Hampshire delegation and other interested Congressional offices on the Department’s efforts on this issue, as well as regular updates on the progress of those efforts,” the delegation said.

Calls made to Gov. Chris Sununu and the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services asking for comment on their plans to address the CDC report were not immediately returned Tuesday.

State Rep. Mindi Messmer, D-Rye, called the high level of pediatric cancers in the state “a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately.”

“I think everyone needs to be aware of it and everyone needs to be proactive in our government and our regulatory agencies to better respond to it,” Messmer said Tuesday.

Messmer, whose legislation created the Commission on the Seacoast Cancer Cluster Investigation, said she’s “not really all that surprised” by the CDC report.

“I’m also not surprised we have the highest rate of breast cancer and bladder cancer,” Messmer said. “When you see those rates in adults, you know that children are vulnerable too.”

She believes that the CDC report is further proof pediatric cancers could be triggered by environmental factors.

“That is a signal to us that our regulatory approach to these cancers has not been sufficient,” Messmer said.

She called the state’s high pediatric cancer rate the “equivalent of an infectious disease outbreak” and said she “doesn’t buy” the claim that state health agencies don’t have enough resources to deal with the issue.

“That’s a scapegoat for them. This is their job, they need to address it,” Messmer said.

Not only does the CDC’s report on pediatric cancers represent a “health crisis,” Messmer said, but it’s “going to affect whether people want to move to New Hampshire.”

“Who’s going to want to live in New Hampshire regardless of how nice our beaches are if people get sick,” Messmer said.

In addition to the identified pediatric cancer clusters, state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan acknowledged in 2017 there were seven brain or central nervous system pediatric cancers detected in the towns of Rye, New Castle, Portsmouth, Greenland and North Hampton during a period when they expected to see 3.1. He determined this did not represent another cancer cluster because the cancers were different types of brain cancers.

Former state Rep. Dr. Tom Sherman, who chaired the former Seacoast Pediatric Cancer Cluster formed by then-Gov. Hassan, said he was “deeply saddened” when he heard the news about the state’s high pediatric cancer rate.

Sherman described the CDC report as “a huge wake-up call to the state of New Hampshire.”

“We want people to feel safe coming to New Hampshire and we want people to feel safe they can bring their children here,” Sherman said. “We need to know exactly what’s happening with these pediatric cancers.”

He called on officials from the state Department of Health and Human Services to do a “deep dive’ and map where the pediatric cancers have occurred and look for possible environmental cancers.

“That way we can see if we can identify any grouping of cancers that might help identify risk,” Sherman said.

In the short term, Sherman stressed the need to be “as proactive as we can in terms of cancer risk reduction, especially with our children.”