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Another View -- Jeanne Shaheen: Pease Moms fight for safe drinking water

By JEANNE SHAHEEN
July 13. 2017 1:11AM


Never underestimate the power of Granite State moms. Andrea Amico of Portsmouth remembers “feeling like my world was crashing down” when tests showed that her two kids, exposed to perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in drinking water at the former Pease Air Force Base, had elevated levels of these harmful materials in their blood.

A by-product of firefighting foam used by the military, PFCs have been linked to birth defects, various forms of cancer and immune system dysfunction. This has caused many sleepless nights not only for Andrea but for countless Americans living and working near at least 660 sites across the country that have been contaminated with these materials.

When officials ignored her concerns, Andrea joined with Michelle Dalton, Alayna Davis, and other Pease parents to campaign for action. When told that only 100 people would be tested for PFC exposure, Andrea created a “Testing for Pease” page on Facebook, organized with friends and neighbors, and eventually won testing for 1,600 people. The Pease Moms pressed the federal government to agree that a health study of water contamination at Pease was feasible, and when the Air Force said it lacked the authority to pay for the study, they refused to take no for an answer. Now, thanks in large measure to their tenacious efforts, Congress is on the verge of approving the first-ever nationwide study on the human health implications of people exposed to PFCs in their drinking water.

Last month, as a member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, I worked with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to include an amendment in the annual Defense Authorization Act authorizing the Department of Defense to conduct this study and produce much-needed answers about the health impacts of exposure to PFC contamination. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will lead a similar bipartisan effort to include funding for the study to be conducted by the appropriate agency, and success in securing funding will depend on the continued engagement of concerned citizens in New Hampshire.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls PFCs “contaminants of emerging concern” because the agency’s lengthy process for assessing toxicity has not yet concluded. But scientists who have studied PFCs have little doubt that they are harmful. PFC contamination has been detected in drinking water sources in a number of towns across New Hampshire. State health officials determined that more than 1,500 people, including children who attended two day care centers, have elevated levels of PFCs in their blood from drinking contaminated groundwater at Pease.

Several communities are struggling with groundwater PFC contamination near the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant in Merrimack. Residents near the Coakley landfill Superfund site in North Hampton are concerned about high levels of PFCs found in nearby surface waters.

Because so many drinking water systems across the United States confront similar challenges, I have joined with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to introduce the bipartisan Safe Drinking Water Assistance Act, which would remove barriers that limit the EPA’s ability to respond with appropriate urgency to emerging contaminants like PFCs. Our legislation would expedite the health analysis of these harmful chemicals, bolster cooperation between the EPA and local communities, and provide support and resources to states dealing with health challenges posed by these harmful materials.

The safety of our drinking water is essential and non-negotiable. And we have learned valuable lessons from the Pease experience. When questions are raised about drinking water quality or any other critical public health issue, governments at all levels need to be better partners to local communities. And when these things fail, it’s up to ordinary citizens to get involved, demand action, and persist until the problem is solved.

The courage and persistence of Andrea Amico and other Portsmouth activists is a big reason why my amendment to fund a national PFC health study was successful. And though this study will be nationwide in scope, I’ll work to ensure that it pays particular attention to the health impacts on Seacoast residents.

Thank you, Pease Moms, for showing us how to stand up effectively for our families and communities.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-Madbury, represents New Hampshire in the United States Senate.


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