PORTSMOUTH -- The director of a federal agency studying the PFC exposure at the former Pease Air Force Base believes there should be a national health study done on the chemical's health effects.
Unfortunately for the children and adults who were exposed to the chemicals in contaminated Portsmouth drinking water, the agency doesn't have the money to pay for the study and the Air Force -- which contaminated the well -- says it can't.
Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Constantino told the crowd gathered at Tuesday night's meeting of the Pease Community Assistance Panel that they had received a request from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to pay for the health studies.
But the Air Force's legal team told them "we can't fund that study," Constantino told the crowd at the CAP meeting, which was hosted by the ATSDR.
Portsmouth resident and CAP member Andrea Amico said she was "terribly disappointed" by the Air Force's decision.
"The fact we've gone through this whole process with the ATSDR for a year" only to find out the Air Force won't pay for the study is "frankly unacceptable," Amico said.
"Why did the Air Force direct us to go through this process," Amico asked.
Constantino replied that it was just like when the community and state of New Hampshire asked the Air Force to "pay for the blood testing or do the blood testing" after the Seacoast community learned of the PFC exposure in May 2014.
"We don't have authority to go into that kind of work," he said. " ... Without authority, there's no funding."
He noted that the Air Force could and did pay for the ATSDR to conduct a feasibility assessment to look at whether health studies could be conducted based on the Pease exposure.
But he stressed "there's a line that's drawn on what we can do" and paying for a study "is something we just can't do."
The city of Portsmouth closed the Haven well at Pease International 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 EPA has since dramatically lowered its health advisory. The EPA classified PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, as "contaminants of emerging concern," because of their suspected health effects. 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.
Air Force and health officials believe the well was contaminated by the use of firefighting foam at the base.
Pat Breysse, the director for the ATSDR, told CAP members that the agency understands that PFC exposure "is a national-scale problem."
"To address health concerns....it's going to require a national commitment," Breysse said during Tuesday night's meeting on Pease. "At ATSDR we're committed to scoping that out."
But Breysse also acknowledged the ATSDR simply does not have a big enough budget to pay for the two Pease focused studies they believed should be conducted -- one on children and one on adults -- never mind a national study.
He estimated that the two Pease only health studies could cost $10 million to $15 million to conduct.
Breysse said three years ago the problem of PFC contamination was "just a blip on our horizon."
He believes there should be a national study done, but acknowledged, "I don't see how we can do it on our existing funding."
"I'm not giving up, I've pledged to work with you and explore every avenue we can," he added.
Former Portsmouth City Councilor and CAP member Stefany Shaheen called the Air Force's decision that they couldn't pay for the study "perplexing," especially because the well contamination was caused by the Air Force.
"I don't think we collectively can afford to take this as the final word on this matter," Shaheen said.
The meeting, which was held at the Pease International Tradeport where the Air Force base was located, was attended by about 100 community residents.
Shaheen stressed that when CAP members started looking into the contamination "we were hoping to get answers for the community."
"We collectively committed to the community that these studies were going to happen....something positive has to come out of this," Shaheen said.
Breysse acknowledged there is precedent for other branches of the Department of Defense to pay for a health study.
"We're going to find a way to make that happen," Shaheen said.
Dover resident Alayna Davis, also a CAP member, asked Constantino why the Air Force commented on the draft feasibility assessment if "you're saying you're not going to fund the study."
"If you're not going to fund the study, you shouldn't have any input at all," she said.
Constantino said because the Air Force paid for the feasibility assessment, they have an obligation to look at how the "taxpayer's dollars" were being spent.
Earlier in the meeting, Frank Bove, the senior epidemiologist at the ATSDR, said the agency believes they could do two Pease related studies, one on children exposed to PFCs, and one on adults.
In order to study causes of death and look at whether PFC exposure causes cancer, they would need to expand the study to other bases, Bove said.
"(We'd need to) look at Pease Air Force Base and other military bases combined," Bove said.
Amico stressed that community members want Pease to be part of a bigger study.
"We need something long term and people monitored over time, not just once," Amico said.