By Jeff McMenemy
Posted Apr 3, 2019 at 5:10 PMUpdated Apr 3, 2019 at 5:27 PM
PORTSMOUTH -- Thousands of people working at Pease International Tradeport were exposed to water contaminated with PFAS chemicals from 1993 to 2014 and that exposure could cause a number of health problems, including cancer, a federal health agency stated in a recently released report.
The Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also addressed a growing concern about whether women who have been exposed to PFAS should breast feed their children.
ATSDR released its Health Consultation Report on PFAS chemicals in Portsmouth’s public water supply this week. It acknowledged in the report “exposures to military and base personnel (at the former Pease Air Force Base) could have occurred before 1993 through drinking water and other sources.”
In April 2015, the U.S. Air Force asked ATSDR to evaluate past and current exposures to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the tradeport public water system (PWS). That request led to the Health Consultation Report.
The source of PFAS in the Pease water system is assumed to be from aqueous film-forming foam used at the former Air Force base, the ATSDR states in the report.
Thousands of people working at the 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 up until its closure in 2014. The city closed the polluted 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.
PFAS are man-made chemicals used in products worldwide since the 1950s, including firefighting foam.
ATSDR concluded that drinking water exposures to PFAS at the tradeport from 1993 to 2014 “could have increased the risk for harmful health effects to Pease International Tradeport workers and children attending the child-care centers.”
ATSDR also reports other sources of PFAS exposure, such as from food and consumer products, to users of the tradeport water system “could increase the risk of harmful effects beyond the risk from the drinking water exposures alone. The cancer risk from past exposure to all PFAS in the Pease tradeport PWS is uncertain.”
ATSDR said scientific studies in general have suggested an association between PFOA and PFOS exposure to “various health endpoints,” including “effects on serum lipids, immune responses, fetal growth and development and the liver,” the report states.
ATSDR is scheduled to present the findings from its report to the Portsmouth City Council at its April 15 meeting. Council meetings typically start at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers in City Hall.
The agency is planning a “proof of concept” study of children and adults exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water at the tradeport. The study will test procedures that may be used in a future first ever national study on health effects from PFAS exposure in drinking water. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen passed the legislation that created the first-ever national study.
ATSDR also concluded the exposure to “low levels of PFAS” at the tradeport since the Haven well was closed “is not expected to cause harm to the public.”
It’s report also weighed in on a topic gaining more attention in communities around the country that have widespread PFAS contamination issues. ATSDR stated “based on available scientific information, ATSDR concludes that the health and nutritional benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks associated with PFAS in breast milk.”
ATSDR acknowledges it has heard concerns from mothers who have been exposed to PFAS and how it might affect their infants when breastfeeding.
“Developmental effects are the most sensitive adverse health effects resulting from early life exposure to some PFAS,” the ATSDR stated in the report. “Studies have shown infants are exposed during pregnancy, through the mother to the fetus, and occur to the nursing infant during breastfeeding.”
Despite that, ATSDR points to the “clear health and nutritional benefits” children who are breastfed receive. It includes “protection from some illnesses and infections and reductions in the risk of developing asthma and sudden infant death syndrome,” the ATSDR stated. “In general,” it added, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends breastfeeding, despite the presence of chemicals in breast milk.”
Portsmouth mother Andrea Amico is a co-founder of Testing For Pease, a grassroots group that led the community to advocate for a health study at Pease. She said she has heard from several women at Pease “who have concerns about breastfeeding and if it will harm their children.”
“I’m happy to see ATSDR made a statement about it,” she said Wednesday. “The fear of the potential health effects has been a concern of the community since the contamination. To have a federal health agency validate that is important and we’re very much looking forward to the health study at Pease.”
Former state Rep. Mindi Messmer, a scientist, said she wasn’t sure ATSDR’s recommendation on breast feeding was “prudent.”
“I’m not convinced women who have been exposed to PFAS and have high serum levels in their blood should be breast feeding,” Messmer said Wednesday.
She said a recent study determined the levels of PFAS in breast milk is several times higher than in blood.
“The delivery to the infant if someone is highly exposed when babies are vulnerable and developing, I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Messmer said, adding she hopes a woman who has to make that decision can get as much information as possible beforehand. “To me the science has to decide it. You can’t say carte blanche a women exposed to PFAS should nurse.”
She added she’s “a huge fan of nursing” and nursed her children.
Concerning the release of the report, Messmer said she’s “glad that a federal health agency has come out and said these things” about the health effects from PFAS exposure.
ATSDR is accepting comments on its report through June 3. Written comments may be emailed to ATSDRRecordsCenter@cdc.gov or mailed to Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Attn: Records Center, Re: Pease Tradeport Public Water System, 4770 Buford Highway, NE (MS F-09), Chamblee, GA 30341.