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Shaheen questions Air Force secretary on PFAS health study

PORTSMOUTH -- U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., questioned the secretary of the Air Force on the first national health study planned for people exposed to PFAS chemicals.

Shaheen on Tuesday morning also asked Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who grew up in Keene, whether she thought there should be a separate branch of the military for space defense during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Shaheen reminded Wilson more than 1,500 people have high levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood after being exposed to the contaminants in a city-owned well at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth. “It’s an issue not just in New Hampshire but in military installations across this country,” Shaheen told Wilson.

Shaheen authored an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that created the first national health study on people exposed to PFAS chemicals in water and then earlier this year secured funds for the study. The study will be conducted by the federal Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“I just wanted to urge you to do everything you can to make sure that funding gets transferred as expeditiously as possible,” Shaheen told Wilson.

She pointed to the 1,500 people with high levels of PFAS in their blood “who are anxious about their future and their children’s future and I know there are many people throughout the Air Force and our other military installations who share that concern.”

Wilson said the Air Force would work with Shaheen, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “to make sure that study is done.”

Portsmouth closed the Haven well in 2015 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, which it classified as “contaminants of emerging concern” because of their suspected health effects.

Both PFOS and PFOA come from a group of toxic chemicals called PFAS, which are suspected carcinogens. Studies on PFAS chemicals have determined they could also cause low birth weights, harm a child’s development and increase cholesterol, according to the ATSDR.

Shaheen also asked Wilson if the military needs to create a separate branch on space defense.

Wilson said the United States “is the best in the world at space and our adversaries know it. ... They’re developing the capabilities to deny us the ability to freely operate in space in crisis of war.”

The Air Force’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget “reflects an alignment to the American leadership” on space defense, she said, adding President Donald Trump “set out a national security strategy and a national space strategy,” while restarting the space council, which Vice President Mike Pence is chairing.

“The secretary of defense and the Air Force are all aligned on the need to accelerate the capabilities which are here in the president’s budget,” Wilson said. “We are building a more lethal and more agile force and I think this Fiscal Year 19 budget has a significant commitment to be able to defend ourselves on orbit.”

Shaheen then asked Wilson “does that mean you think we don’t need to set up a separate space force at least in the foreseeable future?” Wilson said the Air Force is “open to discussing ideas people have in this realm.”

“I think the most important thing is not the organization but what we actually do,” she said. “That is to defend ourselves on orbit and make clear to any advisory that if they take us on in space we will prevail.”