Widow wants presumptive disability for Pease vets
By JEFF MCMENEMY | Portsmouth Herald | Published: April 7, 2019
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (Tribune News Service) -- Doris Brock worries the federal government doesn't want to find out why her husband, and a group of other men who served at the 157th Air Refueling Wing, have died from cancer.
"I actually think the government is trying to stay away from having to deal with any of the past contaminations or past guard members who died," Brock said in a recent interview with Seacoast Sunday. "I guess they figure if they wait long enough then everyone will be gone and they can just contend with the PFAS issue."
Brock's husband, Kendall Brock, served 35 years with the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the National Guard at the former Pease Air Force Base before retiring. In 2015, the retired chief master sergeant was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder and prostate cancer, his wife said.
By the time her husband was diagnosed, "there wasn't anything we could do," she said. "He was given three to five years and he only lived two."
Kendall died June 30, 2017, at age 67.
Brock and a group of widows believe their husband's cancers were caused by both their exposure to contaminated water, but also to a variety of different chemicals they worked with, 12 of which are carcinogens.
At a community listening session at the Pease Air National Guard Base this past December, two former Air Force officials said they believed contaminated water at Pease Air Force Base -- and even deteriorating nuclear missiles -- could have caused what they believe are an unusually high number of birth defects or still-born babies among base personnel in the early 1980s.
The group of widows wants the Department of Veterans Affairs to approve disability claims for "presumptive diseases" for all retired and active guardsmen who get sick, along with anyone who served at the Pease Air Force Base.
"Right now, a lot is being done in terms of the national health study for people at Pease exposed to PFAS, but what about the guys who served their country and are already sick or who already died," Brock said. "If they spent time in the guard and that was their full-time job ... they need to be covered for disability claims."
Brock filed her husband's request for VA disability benefits in 2016 and still has not received a final answer.
According to Military.com, the VA does presume specific disabilities in certain veterans were caused by their service. Examples include Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, related to contaminated water at the U.S. Marine Corps Base. Presumptive conditions for those stationed there from Aug. 1, 1953 to Dec. 31, 1987, include esophageal, breast, kidney, lung cancer and bladder cancers, among others.
On Thursday, first-term U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., and a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced legislation to address some of the key issues Brock and other widows are concerned about.
The Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act would require the VA to cover treatment of any health conditions caused by PFAS exposure, and will make veterans and their families eligible for VA disability benefits.
During an interview Thursday, Pappas said his decision to co-sponsor the bipartisan legislation came in part because of "what we learned from our experiences around Pease." The proposed legislation will "ensure we're taking care of their health-care needs and compensating them in the appropriate manner," he said.
He credited the efforts of "Doris Brock and others who have been instrumental in drawing attention to the problem and demanding action."
Pappas, who serves on the Congressional PFAS Task Force, said the proposed legislation will provide a "a presumption of service connection for veterans, which will give veterans access to health care and VA disability benefits.
Brock stated Saturday "the bill itself is great" but it is "not the bill I was hoping for."
"It does nothing for the active or retired population that I am fighting for. This does not address the chemical contamination and cancers believed to be the result of that contamination," Brock said. "The bill only covers a few diseases and for PFAS/PFOA contamination. Not chemical contamination."
Brock said she will be reaching out to the congressional delegation to address her specific concerns.
U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan previously sent a letter in November to the secretaries of Defense and VA asking them to investigate the cancer-related health concerns of service members at both the former Air Force base and guard base.
"We have heard from a number of military retirees and their families who believe that exposure to approximately a dozen known carcinogens, as well as ground and drinking water contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have caused serious negative health impacts, including the development of a number of cancers ranging from prostate to bladder cancer," Shaheen and Hassan stated in their letter.
They added, "as you know, members of the military may be exposed to numerous chemicals and substances throughout their service and there is precedent within both the DOD and the VA for studying service-connected exposure to hazardous chemicals, substances and conditions."
The Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry this past week released its Health Consultation Report on PFAS chemicals in Portsmouth's public water supply. The report concluded people who drank well water at the former Pease Air Force Base from 1993 to 2014 were exposed to dangerous PFAS chemicals. Those exposures "could have increased the risk for harmful health effects to Pease International Tradeport workers and children attending the child-care centers," the report added.
ATSDR has said exposure to PFAS chemicals may increase a person's risk of getting cancer, increase cholesterol levels, harm the immune system, lower a woman's chance of getting pregnant and affect "growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children."
Chemical exposure at Pease
The ATSDR's report on Pease also acknowledged "exposures to military and base personnel (at the former Pease Air Force Base) could have occurred before 1993 through drinking water and other sources."
The city of Portsmouth closed the polluted Haven well at Pease in May 2014 after the Air Force found high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, in the well.
The EPA in May 2016 set permanent health advisories for PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA at 70 parts per trillion.
PFAS are man-made chemicals used in products worldwide since the 1950s, including firefighting foam.
Pappas this week also stated "it's very clear that the EPA health advisory is out of date and not appropriate to protect public health."
"I'm someone who believes we need to set a much lower maximum contaminant level," he said Thursday. "And we should be doing it at the federal level. They (the EPA) need to be a great deal more aggressive on this front."
Pease Restoration Advisory Board member Peggy Lamson of Newington, during a RAB meeting in early March, pointed out that the Haven well was closed before the 2014 shutdown due to the detection of trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreaser. TCE has also been detected at the long-shuttered Hangar 227 at Pease last used by Pan Am Airlines more than 10 years ago.
The main chemicals involved in the contamination at Camp Lejeune were volatile organic compounds including TCE and perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry cleaning solvent.
The EPA and International Agency for Research on Cancer have determined TCE is a carcinogenic to humans.
Air Force study request
Brock also serves on the working group created by Col. John Pogorek, wing commander of the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease Air National Guard Base. The group, which includes guard widows, retired guardsmen, wing representatives and federal and state health officials, recently worked with Pogorek to draft a letter about the guard's health concerns.
In the letter, Pogorek points to concerns raised about "environmental exposures and potentially related health outcomes."
"I am requesting the Air Force Medical Support Agency (AFMSA) conduct a public health study for military personnel and civilian individuals that lived or worked at the former Pease Air Force Base and Pease Air National Guard Base," Pogorek wrote. "The purpose of the study would be to identify whether their exists higher than expected rates of morbidity and mortality.
"If elevated rates are identified, we are requesting an assessment of possible associations to levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water and potential occupational health exposures to hazardous materials."
Brock credited Pogorek with forming the working group and sending the letter. "I'm really happy he's doing that," she said.
Pappas said Thursday such a study is "absolutely something I would support."
"We need to make sure we're giving people the right information about their own health and looking at all the potential risks from chemical exposures, including PFAS," he said.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, Shaheen asked Heather Wilson, secretary of the Air Force, about the health study the guard has requested. She asked Wilson "what would need to happen in order for us to get that done?"
Wilson replied "I don't know what would have to happen in order to do that kind of a study, but of course we have no objections to that kind of study being done."
Shaheen offered to work with Wilson to make that study happen.
Shaheen this week told Seacoast Sunday "it's tragic that answers remain elusive for so many Granite Staters who've been exposed to these chemicals, which also impacts their ability to access appropriate support and benefits."
"This is one of the reasons why fact finding is so imperative," she said. "Our families deserve answers and there must be accountability from the parties responsible for their exposure."
Hassan this week said she was "grateful to Doris Brock and all the advocates from Pease and across the state who are tirelessly working to get answers on behalf of their loved ones and fellow Granite Staters who have been exposed to PFAS contamination, and I will keep fighting to support their efforts. It is vitally important that people in New Hampshire and across the country who have been exposed to PFAS contamination have the support and information necessary to determine what exposure to PFAS contamination means for their health and well-being."
For her part, Brock wants to make sure that people like her husband, and the men and women still serving at the guard's Pease base, get the health care and benefits they deserve.
"I don't want these guys to be forgotten," Brock said.
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