The U.S. Senate held a major hearing on PFAS chemical contamination Wednesday, with testimony from a local advocate.
New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, who sits on the Senate subcommittee that held the hearing, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who was a guest, questioned federal regulators for two hours.
They pushed for answers on the government's plans for more PFAS research, stricter standards and cleanup plans.
PFAS is a huge class of industrial chemicals that have been linked to serious health issues, including cancer, kidney and liver disease, high cholesterol, developmental problems and immune deficiencies.
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan asked Dr. Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to compare PFAS to other, better-known contaminants.
Birnbaum said PFAS persists in human bodies for years like DDT and PCBs. And she says, like lead, PFAS was once common in household products and may be dangerous to human health at very low levels.
Regulators from the military, Environmental Protection Agency and health agencies also say they recognize PFAS is a major problem, especially in places that used to manufacture the chemicals or use products containing them.
But they say it'll take years to ramp up and coordinate federal management efforts, standards and funding to address existing contamination and prevent its spread.
That's not good enough for New Hampshire residents like Andrea Amico, whose family drank contaminated water at Pease International Tradeport, a former military base.
At the hearing, Sen. Hassan asked Amico, “Do you think the government is acting in a timely manner to address PFAS contamination across the country?”
“I do not,” Amico responded. “I think we need a more consistent approach among the federal agencies."
Amico wants the health studies and blood testing being conducted around Pease to be extended nationwide. Sen. Hassan agreed that cleanup technology being piloted at Pease should be scaled up.
Amico is also pushing for more medical resources, financial help for affected residents and stricter standards that force polluters to provide clean-up.
It’s not clear yet if or how the government will regulate the thousands of PFAS chemicals that exist as one class, or separately. Advocates say they’d prefer a unified approach – perhaps by monitoring for fluorination in the environment.
It’s also not clear if or how Centers for Disease Control data suggesting PFAS may threaten human health at very low levels will factor into forthcoming EPA and state limits on the chemicals in drinking water.
Senators also had questions about the prevalence of PFAS in once-common types of firefighting foams.
PFAS was phased out of American manufacturing and imports in the early 2000s, but large stores of flame-retardant foams containing the chemicals still exist.
The military still uses those kinds of foams to fight active fires, but has stopped using them in training exercises – the kind that severely contaminated places like Pease.
Department of Defense officials say they’re researching non-toxic types of firefighting foams to stop the spread of new contamination entirely.
The House of Representatives advanced legislation this week that gives airports more latitude to use approved firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS.
And the International Association of Firefighters said at the hearing they support discontinuing the use of these so-called legacy firefighting foams, as well as protective gear that can contain PFAS, used to resist water and heat.
Advocates worry that gear has helped drive firefighters’ high cancer rates. They were encouraged to see their cause get attention at the Senate.
Amico was too. In an interview with NHPR after the hearing, she called the hearing a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to push for “meaningful change.” (Click play above to hear the full interview.)
“To have the U.S. Senate pay close attention to this issue, question government officials and allow communities to come in and give their perspective was really an amazing opportunity,” Amico says, “and shows me that the government is working to take this seriously.”
The Environmental Protection Agency aims to issue a national management plan for PFAS by the end of the year. And New Hampshire plans to issue a new drinking water standard for PFAS in 2019.
Click here to watch the hearing and read witnesses' written testimony.