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Shaheen pushes Air Force to pay for health study

PORTSMOUTH — U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., pressed the secretary of the Air Force on why officials there are saying they won’t pay for a health study for people exposed to PFCs at the former Pease Air Force Base.

“We have more than 1,500 Granite Staters who have lived and worked around the Air Base who have learned that their blood contains elevated levels of these chemicals,” Shaheen told Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

The Air Force paid for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to conduct a feasibility assessment to conduct a health study or studies for the adults and children exposed to the chemicals in a city-owned well at Pease International Tradeport. Air Force and health officials believe the well was contaminated by firefighting foam used at the base. But the Air Force told members of the Pease Community Assistance Panel (CAP) last week it would not fund the health studies.

Shaheen asked Wilson “why that is and what can be done to address this, which is a continuing threat to the people in the Seacoast region.”

Wilson replied she didn’t know if the “Air Force is the right entity to do (the study) and whether we even have the authority to do a health study on a civilian population around the base.”

“I think the general council offices both in the Department of Defense as well as the Air Force are taking a look at that and we’re happy to work with you and others on what’s the best way to do a human health study,” Wilson said, adding it’s “not our core competency honestly.”

Shaheen said she understood the Air Force would not conduct the study, but pointed out the U.S. Navy paid for the ATSDR to conduct “a similar kind of health study at Camp Lejeune.”

“I just wondered what’s the difference between the Navy’s ability to do that and the Air Force’s,” Shaheen asked. “Is that just willingness (or) is there some other issue there?”

Wilson responded that the Air Force previously heard about the Camp Lejeune study from Shaheen’s office and “we’ve asked the general counsel to talk to the Marine Corps and Navy counsel and find out how they did that.”

Shaheen said after the hearing Tuesday she “appreciated hearing from Secretary Wilson that the Air Force is looking into previous precedent for the military funding similar health studies.”

“I will continue to work closely with the Air Force on this issue and will exhaust all available avenues to help find the best way to fund this needed health study in the Seacoast region,” she said.

The city of Portsmouth closed the Haven well at the tradeport in May 2014 after the Air Force found levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, at 12.5 times higher than what was then the EPA’s provisional health advisory. The ATSDR has said some health studies on people exposed to PFCs show they can harm a developing fetus or child, decrease fertility, interfere with the body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol, hurt the immune system and even increase cancer risk.

Portsmouth resident and CAP member Andrea Amico said she was “extremely grateful” for Shaheen’s questioning of the Air Force secretary, adding “this is a very important issue to our community.” But Amico wanted to hear more from the Air Force.

“I wish the Air Force had more substance to their response,” she said Tuesday. “The intention of the Pease community having a health study has been talked about for a really long time. I would have hoped the Air Force would have had a more detailed response.”

She also credited Shaheen for asking about the Camp Lejeune study, which she called “precedent setting.” “We should be exploring how ATSDR was able to obtain funds for that study and follow a similar pathway for Pease and the rest of the nation,” Amico said.

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said Tuesday she “appreciated Sen. Shaheen’s strong questioning of Secretary Wilson today and agree that the Air Force must explain why it has said it will not provide funding” for the health study. “I will continue working with Sen. Shaheen to get answers for the people of the Seacoast and to address their public health concerns,” she said.