Guest blog by Andrea Amico, co-founder Testing for Pease
Also, check out her TEDxPortsmouth talk: PFAS and a Mother's Journey to Becoming A Clean Water Advocate
"It's not going to tell you anything." "It will only worry you." "It's too expensive.” “It's not routine." "It's not needed."
These are just a handful of the responses I have heard and experienced over the last five years as a PFAS impacted community leader on why community members should not be offered PFAS blood testing.
After first learning of my family's exposure to high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals through contaminated drinking water at the Pease Tradeport (the former Pease Air Force Base) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, one of the first and worrisome facts I learned in my research on PFAS are that they bioaccumulate, or build up, in the body because they are eliminated from our bodies very slowly . It bothered me that the chemicals that my two small children unknowingly drank at their daycare center on the Pease Tradeport as infants and toddlers would remain in their body, as they continue to grow and develop, for years (some of them for decades). And what keeps me up at night is wondering what these persistent and toxic chemicals could do to the multiple tissues, organs, and systems in their body as they mature into older children, teenagers, young adults, and beyond.
I learned early on in my research that a blood test could be done to determine PFAS levels in our bodies, but that the science was not advanced enough to determine the risk of certain health effects at various levels of exposure. I remember meeting with my children's pediatrician to talk about my concerns and to further explore blood testing options after learning of their exposure. I will never forget his position: even if we don't know what the PFAS levels in their blood mean today, it is still important to establish a baseline now and hope that someday the science will advance enough to better understand what levels of PFAS in the blood could trigger certain health effects.
It was that rationale that motivated my initial advocacy efforts for a PFAS blood testing program in my community and to establish the community action group called Testing for Pease. The "testing" in Testing for Pease refers to the PFAS blood tests we advocated for on behalf of our families and our entire community.
It was not easy to get blood testing for the Pease community. In fact, it came with a lot of initial ignored messages and silence. After about eight months of no action, I went to the media to share my story and raise awareness that Pease community members suffered a significant environmental exposure and needed access to a PFAS blood test to better understand their exposure. Unfortunately, a PFAS blood test is not a routine lab test that can be processed by your local lab and covered by your health insurance. In fact, there are only a handful of labs certified to test for PFAS in blood and the out of pocket cost for this test is out of reach for most people.
A PFAS blood testing program was eventually offered by the New Hampshire Department of Human Health Services and it revealed the Pease community has significantly elevated PFAS blood levels when compared to the general population. And it was these findings of the Pease community’s blood test results that led us to work with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to start planning the Pease PFAS Health Study and eventually the Multi-Site PFAS Health Study that will take place at seven other sites across the nation. Federal legislation initiated by Senator Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act authorized and funded these PFAS studies.
PFAS blood tests made a difference in the Pease community and I often hear from many communities across the country that they want a PFAS blood testing program, too.
Sadly, many communities are denied access to a PFAS blood testing program due to cost, lack of easily accessible labs, and a culture from the government and medical community that PFAS blood tests are not needed because they “won’t tell you anything” and “will just worry you”. It frustrates me that communities have been exposed to PFAS, unbeknownst to them, and then are denied access to a blood test to quantify how much their body has been polluted. Impacted communities did not voluntary sign up to be guinea pigs in this PFAS experiment and they shouldn’t be denied access to a blood test to document their exposure once their contamination has been discovered.
With or without a PFAS blood test, communities worry and want to know how to take control of their health now that they have been contaminated without their consent. Knowing their PFAS blood levels helps to establish their exposure level and raise awareness so they can be proactive in the future to reduce their exposure. PFAS blood test results in my community empowered us to advocate for more action from our government and secure a health study for us and for several other PFAS sites across the country. Imagine what a wide spread PFAS blood testing program for all impacted communities could lead to? And if we don’t test impacted communities for PFAS now, how will we ever advance the science to get those concrete answers we all desperately want and deserve?
Instead of focusing on what a PFAS blood test can’t tell us, we should focus on what PFAS blood testing can do for those exposed. Communities can make informed choices about their own exposure to PFAS and how to work with their doctors to monitor their health to diagnose health effects early and prevent progression of disease (when possible). PFAS blood testing can empower communities to advocate for more protections and it can help to move the needle in the right direction in being able to provide more scientific answers.
It seems fundamentally wrong that communities can be poisoned by PFAS without their permission and then be denied access to a blood test that can document their PFAS exposure and potentially lead to more definite answers for their health in the future.
State and federal agencies should provide access to PFAS blood testing for all impacted communities and establish medical monitoring guidelines so community members can take control of their health and future. Polluters should be made to pay and take responsibility for the damage they have inflicted by funding the costs associated with PFAS blood testing, medical monitoring, long term health effects, access to clean water, environmental cleanup, and decreased property values.
We must learn from this enormous mistake of allowing widespread use of such a large and persistent class of chemicals that have now contaminated our bodies, water, food supply, wildlife, natural resources, and future generations. It is critical we put processes in place to stop the current use, release, and exposure to PFAS; regulate PFAS as a class to prevent additional exposures; and provide resources to impacted communities to document their exposure, monitor their health, and clean up this enormous mess.