Very little known about human health effects, state official says
PORTSMOUTH — City officials shut down a well that serves Pease International Tradeport after tests found a contaminant in the water, according to state, city and Pease Development Authority officials.
PDA Executive Director David Mullen said the well was shut down in “an abundance of caution” after a test found perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in the well. PFOS is one of a class of chemicals known as PFCs or perfluorochemicals, according to a press release from the state.
“Because the level of PFOS exceeds the ‘provisional health advisory’ set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the well was immediately shut down by the city of Portsmouth,” the release states. “The water in the other two wells servicing Pease also contained PFCs but not above the provisional health advisory level.”
Tests were also conducted on all of the wells that serve the city of Portsmouth, but “no PFCs were detected in any of the other supply wells or surface water sources that serve the Portsmouth water system,” according to the release.
The EPA classifies PFOS as a “contaminant of emerging concern because the risk to human health … may not be known,” according to the federal agency’s Web site. A February release from the EPA states “PFOS are organic chemicals that have been used in a variety of commercial and consumer products, such as stain and water repellents for carpets and upholstered furnishings, paper products, fire-fighting foams and non-stick cookware.”
PFOs “are persistent in the environment and are known to have adverse effects in laboratory animals,” the release states. “Recent epidemiology data suggest the possibility for some adverse effects on human health.”
State, Pease and local officials speculate that the PFOS found in the well came from firefighting foam used by the Air Force “starting around 1970 … and consequently contaminated the well.” The former Pease Air Force Base is a Superfund site being cleaned up by the U.S. Air Force with oversight by the N.H. Department of Environmental Services and EPA.
Mullen said the Haven Well that was shut down is on the airfield “between the apron and the runway.”
Dr. Jose Montero, director of Public Health at the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, stressed on Thursday that health officials don’t know the health impacts — if any — from drinking water containing PFOS.
“There is nothing of evidence in the research literature about the health impact on human health,” Montero said.
He said animal studies have shown some health effects, including problems with growth and development, reproduction and liver damage, but there are no existing studies that show harm to people.
“It makes it quite complex for all of us to figure out what the right message is,” he said.
Although two tests have now confirmed the presence of PFOS in the Haven Well, officials don’t know for sure how long the contaminant has been in the water, because they just started testing.
“If you’ve been drinking a liter of water a day (at the tradeport), there is risk, but we can’t quantify the risk,” Montero said. “The reality is that it’s new. The feds are trying to figure it out.”
Because the EPA has classified PFOS “as a contaminant of emerging concern,” state and city officials have not been required to test for it, Montero said.
The agency is in the process of setting up a public meeting to talk to concerned residents, but it has not been scheduled yet, he said.
A draft study on the health effects to humans caused by PFOS say “the evidence for the carcinogenicity of PFOS is considered ‘suggestive of carcinogenicity,’ but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenicity potential.”
Brian Goetz, deputy director of public works for the city of Portsmouth, said Thursday that the Haven Well that was shut down was used for tradeport customers. He said the only time it’s been used for city of Portsmouth customers was on “an emergency basis” and the last time that happened was “several years ago.”
Water from the Haven Well, before it was shut down, was also blended with water from two other wells operated by the city at the tradeport before customers received it, Goetz said.
Mullen said the PFOS was detected in tests done recently by the U.S. Air Force. The tradeport was an Air Force base from 1956 to 1991.
“One of the things about Pease is it has been very carefully looked at by the U.S. Air Force,” Mullen said. “We’re scrutinized more than most and the Air Force was testing in advance of an EPA requirement to test, which begins in 2015.”
Goetz said since PFOS were found in the Haven Well, the city will test its other wells more frequently for the contaminants.
“We’ll be meeting with the Air Force and DES to set up the schedule,” Goetz said.
Goetz said water from the city’s system is now being used at Pease so there are no anticipated shortages or problems with lack of capacity at the tradeport.