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Shaheen: PFAS health study can deliver answers

PORTSMOUTH -- Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., believes the first national health study on PFAS exposure will help give parents in the Seacoast some answers they’ve been asking for.

Shaheen announced in March she had procured $7 million for the study on people exposed to PFAS chemicals in drinking water that came as a result of legislation she introduced.

During an exclusive interview Thursday, Shaheen said because PFAS or PFCs are contaminants of emerging concern “we don’t have the kind of health studies that show what the health impacts would be.”

“This would be the first of its kind (study) ... to answer questions that folks have here that have been drinking water, particularly the families and the parents whose children have drunk the water at the child-care centers at Pease to see what the health implications might be,” she said.

The city of Portsmouth closed its Haven well in May 2014 at the former Pease Air Force Base after the Air Force found perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, at levels dramatically higher than what was then the Environmental Protection Agency’s provisional health advisory. The EPA has since substantially lowered its permanent health advisory for both PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, two of the family of toxic man-made PFAS chemicals.

The health advisory is 70 parts per trillion for PFOS or PFOA or a combination of the two.

Air Force officials believe PFAS used in firefighting foam at the former air base contaminated the Haven well.

According to 3M, which manufactured PFCs and similar compounds from the 1950s until 2002, PFAS was also used in a range of industrial processes including aviation hydraulic fluid, as well as firefighting foam, and various consumer products.

Studies on the toxic PFAS chemicals, which are suspected carcinogens, have determined they could also cause low birth weights, harm a child’s development and increase cholesterol, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The ATSDR will be conducting the national health study on PFAS exposure.

Seacoast community activists have raised concerns because the ATSDR has not committed to including the Pease community in the national health study. Shaheen said Thursday her office has yet to receive a decision from ATSDR officials about whether the Seacoast will be included in the health study.

The state’s congressional delegation previously sent a letter to Patrick Breysse, director of the ATSDR, urging him to include Pease in the study.

“Obviously, they want to do whatever is necessary from a scientific perspective to make sure the information they have is going to be accurate. So, ultimately they’re going to have to make the final decision based on the science,” Shaheen said about the ATSDR. “What I think we need to do is to let them know what’s gone on here and have as much information as possible so they understand why this would be a good community to include as they’re looking at the study.”

Local environmental advocates have also called on the EPA to set health advisory levels for other PFAS chemicals, which may be as dangerous or even more dangerous as PFOS and PFOA.

An example of that is PFHxS, which has been found at high levels in many of the adults and children who were exposed to PFAS chemicals from the Haven well.

Shaheen met with Assistant Secretary John Henderson of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy on Thursday, along with state and federal regulators.

During that meeting, the EPA said it is “going to be releasing criteria around 75 of those PFCs ... that they will be looking at that they have concerns about with respects to impacts on health.”

“That will be done by the end of this year, it may be sooner,” Shaheen said. “We didn’t get a specific date but I think that’s positive news that they’re working to try to look at the range of those PFCs that may be a danger.”

Shaheen acknowledged there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how dangerous PFAS chemicals are.

“I think there are a lot of questions and a lot of reasons to be concerned,” she said. “I think we don’t want to jump ahead of what the science may tell us so we need to get real answers and that’s why this health study is important and that’s why the work that the EPA is doing is important.”

“I think what we want is real information that’s going to give answers to the questions that people have,” she added.

In addition to Pease and multiple other locations across the state, PFAS contamination has become a major issue at the Coakley landfill, a Superfund cleanup site in North Hampton and Greenland. People living around the landfill are worried that chemicals leaching from the landfill will contaminate their residential drinking wells.

Monitoring wells have found 1,4-dioxane at levels above the EPA’s health advisory level and PFOS levels as high as 1,108 ppt. Both chemicals are suspected carcinogens. Tests in Berry’s Brook near the landfill found levels of PFAS chemicals in surface water nearly three times higher than the health advisory level for groundwater.

During a meeting in Greenland Thursday night, NHDES officials repeated their concerns about the contamination and said they asked the Coakley Landfill Group (CLG) to install a water treatment system there. But the CLG refused.

The CLG is made up of municipalities and private companies who used the landfill or brought waste there. The group is responsible for paying to clean up the site. The city of Portsmouth, and by extension Portsmouth taxpayers, bears the biggest share of the remediation costs at 53.6 percent.

The EPA has said it doesn’t believe a treatment system is necessary in Berry’s Brook.

Asked if the EPA needs to be more aggressive at Coakley dealing with the contamination, Shaheen said, “This is a new development. Seeing how ... those chemicals are now affecting the landfill, and again I think the more we can learn about what the impact is and how we can address that, the better.”

“We will be urging the EPA to do everything they can to make that happen,” she added.