As of this week, the state has tested the blood of 260 adults and children who were exposed to contaminated well water at the Pease Tradeport. But some parents are questioning why their children are asked to sign a consent form before being tested.
About a year ago, water tests revealed that a potentially harmful contaminant had been leaching into well water on the former Pease Airforce Base. It was from old firefighting foam that was used as early as 1970.
There are two groups of people affected by this: the 9,500 employees who work at the Pease Tradeport, and the 315 children, from infancy to age six, who attend two childcare centers also at Pease.
Employees and parents have pushed the state to provide blood tests, But among the blood test paperwork parents found something odd.
A “Child Assent” form from DHHS that contains a list of bullet points that say things like the following: “Even though your family has said you can have your blood tested, it’s your choice,” and “When someone draws your blood, they put a tight band around your arm, and then you may feel a sharp sting from the needle as it goes in.”
Below is a single line that says: “Child’s Signature.”
At Discovery Child Enrichment Center, mother Wendy Ansara says she read the form, and found it surprising.
“Yeah, my child can’t even write,” she says, laughing “she can’t even hold a pencil, yet.”
Several local attorneys also chuckled when shown the Child Assent form. And Massachusetts juvenile law specialist, Attorney Ann Crowley says she’s never seen anything like it.
“It’s absurd. Children are by law incompetent to consent to anything. It blows my mind that they are bothering to address this to someone who is clearly not going to either understand it or have any authority to make it their own decision.”
State epidemiologist Ben Chan says the form was drafted after federal guidelines designed to gain assent for human research studies. Those guidelines, however, state that they should be directed to kids over the age of seven. Most kids on Pease are under the age of six.
Chan says DHHS’s work to develop testing protocol has been difficult because the procedure is neither medically necessary, nor for research purposes.
Those who are tested learn whether the concentration of the PFCs in their blood is above average. All Westerners are exposed to PFCs in our environment. The chemical stays in the body indefinitely and cannot be removed. At the moment, the EPA is trying to determine if they are carcinogenic in humans, and at what levels.
As for the form, Chan says, “The purpose of this form was more of a tool to have discussions with kids around why they would be tested and what it would be used for.”
Although the document doesn’t say so, Chan says the child’s signature is not required to receive a blood test. He says DHHS has received calls from parents who were upset by the form.
“Certainly going back and looking at the form, we could have done a much better job communicating what the intent of the form was and how parents should use it. In hindsight we could have done a better job at that.”
Parents, city officials, and NH lawmakers have scrutinized DHHS for their slow response to the contamination, and for initially limiting blood testing to 100 people. The tests are now open to anyone who has been exposed. Friday is the last day to sign up.