Mixed Messages Raise Anxiety For Those Dealing With Pease Water Exposure

Sep 28, 2015

Shari and Brooke Piper are among almost 1000 community members to get their blood tested after exposure on Pease.
Credit Emily Corwin, NHPR

People exposed to contaminants in well water on the former Pease Air Force Base say the state’s information about health risks has been insufficient. While the state says no conclusions can be made about the science, scientists say more is known that the state is letting on.

Perfluorochemicals – or PFCs – have been used in Teflon pans, fabric protector, pizza boxes and ski wax. By now, we all have PFCs in our blood.  But many of those who have worked or gone to school at Pease have tested higher for PFCs than the general population. That’s because PFCs are in the firefighting foam used on Pease since the 1970’s.

Last year, the wells on Pease were tested for the chemicals for the first time – and came back above the EPA’s provisional health advisory. That’s when Shari Piper, and many others who have and do work on Pease – found out about it.

Piper works in tech support at a software company on the former Air Force base. Brooke went to daycare there for five years.

The Pipers are among thousands exposed to PFCs in drinking water on Pease over the last few decades. Piper’s 14 month old Adrian was exposed in utero and through breastmilk.

Soon, the Pipers will join nearly 1000 others who have gotten their blood tested for PFCs by the state’s health department to find out how much of this stuff is in their blood. But, Piper says, she still feels uninformed about what the health risks are.  “If it’s this huge issue that’s life threatening, I want to know about it,” she says, “but if it’s a small chance, I’d like to know that too.

The state has held several public forums. At meeting after meeting, state epidemiologist Ben Chan says “we just can’t definitively say if PFCs cause health effects in children or adults.”

And it’s true, scientists have not proven that PFCs cause illness. 

But Chan admits – unless you’re willing to dose people with the chemicals in a double blind, randomized study, proving causation to scientific standards is nearly impossible. When asked, he describes the science as inconclusive. At a recent public hearing, Chan explained “there are studies which statistically speaking find some sort of number association, but there are an equal number of studies that don’t show any connection.”

His comments go along with federal guidelines from Centers for Disease Control.

But most researchers who study these chemicals agree there are meaningful links between exposure and a variety of illnesses.

Philippe Grandjean is a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “To claim that the science is not convincing,” he says, “well you can do that about tobacco smoke! But it doesn’t make sense from a public health viewpoint.”

The most conclusive studies have been done on people with significantly higher levels of PFCs than those on Pease. 

Kyle Steenland was one of three epidemiologists who led a research panel that was part of a class action settlement in the Ohio River Valley with DuPont. “The epidemiology is as good as you can get in the situation,” he says. The company manufactured Teflon using PFOA – which got into groundwater there over many decades.  The same chemical was among those found Pease. The outcomes Steenland’s panel found included associations with kidney cancer and testicular cancer, among others.

More recent research suggests negative health outcomes at lower exposure levels, too -- for example, having to do with immune system function.

The problem is, short of removing large quantities of blood – which is only recommended in the most extreme scenarios– nothing can be done to remove these chemicals from our bodies.

That’s why Chan says, the state’s health department is hoping to convey a message of calm.

“So one of my concerns about communicating this is the amount of fear and anxiety that comes from knowing the amount of PFCs one has in their blood,” he begins, “and so we want people to understand that just because they have a blood test and have PFCs in their bodies does not mean that they have had health effects, or will develop health effects from PFC exposure.”

At the same time, many people affected say they’d be less anxious if they got more details, even if those details are uncertain.

Brian Frankenfield has been working for a corporation on Pease for 14 years. Every week day for five of those years, his daughter Kaitlyn went to daycare there. Kaitlyn’s blood tests came with higher concentrations of contaminants than many other children on Pease.

"I'd like to have DHHS and others have a little more confidence in parents to take this information and assimilate it and figure out what next steps are for them."

Overall, he says, he appreciates the state’s efforts to inform the public about the contaminants at Pease. But, he says “I’d like to have DHHS and others have a little more confidence in parents to take this information and assimilate it and figure out what next steps are for them.”

Some members of the public have already come up with a list of next steps they’d like DHHS to take. Those include a long term monitoring plan to follow health trends in the Pease population; blood tests for a local control group to compare the Pease blood results with; and a registry, so that exposed individuals can be alerted as new trends or treatments are discovered.

Harvard professor Philippe Grandjean says transparency is important so affected communities can advocate for their needs. But he’s looking at an even bigger picture. “We don’t want to worry people,” he says, “but we also want to keep up the pressure on the government, and on the state, so that more people aren't exposed to these compounds because we know they are toxic.”

Grandjean says the EPA ought to reduce the acceptable concentration of PFCs in water by 100 fold; and Congress ought to make it harder for companies to sell products with chemicals that haven’t been tested for toxicity.

Maybe, he says, people like Shari Piper, and Brian Frankenfield – will be the ones who push for that change.