PORTSMOUTH – Several Seacoast residents pushed N.H. Department of Environmental Services officials to lower their proposed water quality standards for PFAS chemicals.
Portsmouth mother and Testing For Pease co-founder Andrea Amico told a group of DES officials that her husband and her two oldest children were exposed to contaminated water at the Pease International Tradeport.
DES held Tuesday evening’s hearing to get public input on their proposed Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for four of the literally thousands of PFAS chemicals.
Amico urged DES to set more protective MCLs than the ones they’re proposing.
“I do not feel New Hampshire is leading the way with the current four proposed levels,” Amico said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Amico said scientists do not know the health effects people face when exposed to multiple PFAs chemicals, like the exposure that occurred at Pease.
“I lose sleep at night knowing my kids are guinea pigs in this PFAS experiment I didn’t sign up for,” Amico said.
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 up until its closure in 2014.
The city closed the polluted well at the former base 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.
DES proposed lowering the drinking water quality standard of PFOA to 38 ppt, while keeping the PFOS standard at 70 ppt, and keeping the combined PFOS and PFOA level at 70 ppt. It also proposed setting the drinking water standard for perfluorohexanesulfonic acid, or PFHxS, which was found at high levels in Haven well, at 85 ppt, while establishing the level for perfluorononanoic acid, or PFNA at 23 ppt.
PFAS are man-made chemicals used in products worldwide since the 1950s, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware and water-repellent fabrics and carpet.
In addition to being a suspected carcinogen, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states PFAS exposure can harm childhood development, increase cholesterol levels, hurt the immune system and interfere with the human body’s hormones.
Amico pointed to other states, like New Jersey and Vermont, who have set substantially more protective levels for PFAS chemicals and asked DES to “set a MCL for all PFAS in drinking water to one part per trillion.”
She acknowledged it was a “big ask,” but stated if DES sticks with the proposed levels, they will be “gambling with the health of the public.”
Because of the PFAS contamination at the Pease, babies have been “born already contaminated with PFAS,” Amico said.
She also told DES officials that she worries that the state does not have adequate resources or experience to take on such a significant task.”
It’s too late, Amico said, to “undue what has been done at Pease, Merrimack and Coakley,” but DES can “prevent this from happening again.”
Environmental scientist and former state Rep. Mindi Messmer, whose legislation compelled DES to set the standards for the four PFAS chemicals, pushed DES to establish lower standards.
She pointed to studies that have shown that even short-term exposure in infants can cause “dramatic” health impacts.
New Hampshire also has the highest pediatric, breast cancer and bladder cancer rates in the country, she said.
“At least 50 percent of cancers can be prevented by eliminating exposures to toxins,” Messmer said.
Meredith Hatfield, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, reminded DES that PFAS are “highly toxic, bioaccumlate (in the body) and are highly persistent.”
In addition to causing “a range of health problems,” they have been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, Hatfield said.
She encouraged DES to treat PFAS as a class of chemicals and stated their proposed MCLs “aren’t protective enough.”
She, too, called for DES to set levels as low as one part per trillion.
“Like lead, it may be no amount of PFAS is safe for humans,” Hatfield said.
Portsmouth environmental activist Lindsey Carmichael, who co-founded the New Hampshire Safe Water Alliance, also told DES that their proposed levels “are not protective enough.”
And she reminded officials that “infants are the most at-risk population for all sorts of chemical exposure.”
About 50 people attended Tuesday’s meeting.