PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Veterans and families who lived and worked at the former Pease Air Force Base want the government to begin collecting data about their disease rates and possible ties to chemical exposures on the installation.
At a forum in an aircraft hangar Friday, dozens of people stood at a microphone and told an Air National Guard colonel about their health problems and their experiences at the base.
Veterans recalled routine, unprotected interactions with chemicals now known or suspected to be toxic, according to New Hampshire Public Radio.
They said they'd wash their hands in jet fuel, pour used hydraulic fluid directly into storm drains, and douse each other in firefighting foams to celebrate retirements.
Those foams are now known to contain PFAS chemicals, which are suspected to cause cancer and myriad other health conditions. High levels of PFAS turned up in the drinking water at Pease in 2014.
The water at or around 126 military installations contains potentially harmful levels of perfluorinated compounds, which have been linked to cancers and developmental delays for fetuses and infants.
The Air Force is now working with the state and city of Portsmouth to clean up that water supply. And the base, which is now Pease International Tradeport, had already been deemed a federal Superfund site.
But former mechanic Tony Lebel says it's not enough.
"Once they identify the problem, they start taking care of the problem," he said. "The problem is, what about the people that were already there? The people from the '60s, '70s, '80s and even further back?"
Lebel and others recalled babies born with birth defects on the base during that time, and routine water tests, the results of which were never shared with residents.
Other stories came from the family members of men who died of cancer and other diseases that may be caused by chemical exposure, long after their time at the base.
Bonnie Peterman told Pease leadership her husband Wayne died of cancer two months after his diagnosis, years after working at Pease.
"He was 67 years old," she said. "We'd been married 16 months. It was heartbreaking to both of us because we truly had hoped for a longer time."
Asked if she knew her husband's occupation when he worked at the base, Peterman said, "I really don't. I have some papers." She spelled and repeated his name for officials' records: "Wayne Perreault, the love of my life."
Officials believe Pease is the first base in the country to look beyond the emerging problem of PFAS chemical contamination and to try to tackle a broader range of possible exposures through epidemiology and community outreach.
Those at the forum said they'd like to see a registry of former base residents, with details about where they worked, the chemicals they encountered and their current health conditions.
They hope it could show possible causes and let doctors and other state and federal agencies provide more resources for treatment and testing.
The base’s working group on the issue includes state and military epidemiologists and environmental officials. They’ll now begin meeting monthly to identify next steps.