PORTSMOUTH — An article just published by public health professors from Harvard University and Boston University concludes that the provisional health advisory level for a chemical found in three city wells “may be 100-fold too high.”
The city closed the Haven well in May 2014 after the Air Force tested the well and found levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) 10 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s Provisional Health Advisory (PHA).
The EPA has classified PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA – which was also found in the Haven well but below the PHA – as “contaminants of emerging concern” because of their potential harm to people. PFOS and PFOA are a class of chemicals known as PFCs, or perfluorochemicals, according to state officials.
Phillipe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard’s School of Public Health, stated Friday that the EPA’s drinking water limits for both PFOS and PFOA are “at least 100-fold too high to protect against adverse effects on the immune system in children.”
Grandjean, who wrote the article along with Richard Clapp, a professor emeritus of environmental health at BU’s School of Public Health, stated he didn’t believe there was cause for concern with “short-term exposures to PFCs.”
But he added the chemicals are “very persistent and accumulate in the body.”
“Thus the residents – especially children and women who are or plan to get pregnant, should be protected against water contaminated by these compounds,” Grandjean said.
Clapp, who appeared at a recent Community Advisory Board (CAB) meeting to discuss PFCs with city officials and residents, said Friday the article reviewed previous studies on the health effects of PFCs.
“That’s what led to the impression that safe levels (set by the EPA) are too high,” Clapp said during an interview Friday.
The article states that “more than 30 years ago, early studies reported immunotoxicity and carcinogenicity effects” from exposure to PFCs, which Clapp said means the chemicals are likely carcinogens and cause immune system problems.
The article goes on to conclude that the potential health effects from PFC exposure have been underestimated.
It goes on to say a Norwegian study of children at age 3 concluded that PFC exposure contributed to “decreased vaccine responses, especially toward rubella vaccine and increased frequencies of common cold and gastroenteritis.”
State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan detailed the potential danger of PFCs in an email to state Emergency Services Director Rick Cricenti. In the email, Chan states “there have been studies looking at health effects that suggest (but are not conclusive) for immune system effects, hormone dysfunction, certain types of cancer (kidney, testicle, thyroid), etc.”
Clapp said “in theory any level of exposure will increase the risk level by some minute amount.
“The goal is to have zero carcinogens in water,” Clapp said Friday.
The people who are at the biggest risk to suffer health effects from PFC exposure are “people who were exposed the most, who worked with PFCs or manufactured them,” Clapp said.
“Again, at low levels, there’s low risks,” Clapp said. “It’s all a question of how long someone was exposed and at what levels.”
But he stressed even low levels of prenatal exposure “may cause problems.”
“The human fetus is particularly sensitive,” Clapp said.
He continued to recommend that an environmental physician should appear at an upcoming Community Advisory Board meeting to put the health risks in perspective.
But he said it is critically important “to keep a careful eye” on the PFC levels in the Smith and Harrison wells, which are still open and like the Haven well, are located at the Pease International Tradeport.
The tradeport sits on the former Pease Air Force Base, a Superfund clean-up site.
Asked about the article’s conclusions, Mayor Robert Lister said it’s important “not to panic.”
He said he was “glad that they presented the information.”
“It’s important and we’ve been looking for information that would help us,” Lister said. “This is exactly why I’ve been calling for future monitoring.”
Lister has repeatedly said there needs to be some kind of long-term monitoring study to continue to assess the health impacts of the PFC exposure.
Lister stated he was “very concerned” about the article’s conclusions and the elevated levels found on average in the first set of about 100 blood tests processed for people exposed to the contaminated water.
City officials are working quickly to try to identify a viable treatment option for the two remaining open wells on Pease, and for the Air Force to pay for their treatment, the mayor said.
He also believes it’s important for the community advisory board to meet again soon, talk to an environmental physician and “come up with a solid plan” for treatment options.
He also stressed there is a lot of information – and sometimes conflicting scientific information – about the potential health effects of PFC exposure.
He noted that people can also be exposed through to PFCs food wrappers and also the Teflon pans we cook with.
State and federal officials believe the PFCs that contaminated the Haven well came from firefighting foam used on the runway.
City Councilor Stefany Shaheen said she was familiar with the article’s conclusions.
“I think it is further reinforcement of the importance of treating the water,” Shaheen said about the two open remaining wells.
She stressed the Air Force must pay for the treatment, but the city needs to move forward as quickly as possible to implement a viable system.
Asked if children at either of the two Pease day cares should be drinking the water from the Smith and Harrison wells considering the article’s conclusion about the PHA, Shaheen said, “We need to make sure that treatment options are in place,” at any business on Pease that deals with children.
“We can do that right away,” Shaheen said about the ability to treat at the tap or in the day cares’ overall water system. “There’s no reason not to do that right away.”
She stressed that while other studies may come forward with conflicting information, she believes “there’s no reason to take a risk.”
“I think there’s very real reasons to be concerned,” Shaheen added.
She also stated city officials should be immediately ready to help the day cares if they need it.
“In light of the findings in Dr. Clapp’s report, I don’t think we should wait,” Shaheen said.
She also believes it’s important to “engage pediatricians in the community,” about the potential impact on vaccines and while continuing to update parents.
She understands why parents are likely concerned about the pending test results for their children, especially with elevated levels found in the first 98 adult tests processed.
“As a parent who has been in the situation where watchful waiting is all you can do, I understand it’s not a good answer,” Shaheen said.
Shaheen is the mother of a daughter who has diabetes.
CAB Chairman Rich DiPentima called the article’s conclusions “very interesting” and said it represents “significant information.”
He stressed “it’s always hard to hang your hat at one study,” but said Clapp and Grandjean are “very reliable scientists” and “people with good reputations.”
He’s invited an environmental physician to attend the next CAB meeting to help put the test results into perspective.
Plus, DiPentima said, he’s asking state officials to hold an upcoming meeting just focused on the test results from children exposed to PFCs.
“There’s nothing we can do about the exposure that has already taken place,” he said. “We continue to be exposed to these chemicals off and on the Pease Air Force Base.”
He just asked community members to take a “reasoned approach” to the issue and continue to reach out to their primary-care doctors with any concerns.
Chan said Wednesday the average of the Pease tests levels for PFOS, PFOA and Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid or PFHxS, were all higher than the national average.
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