By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern

Andrea Amico is an occupational therapist who moved to New Hampshire in 2007 with her husband after he was offered a job at the Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, NH. Amico described it as a beautiful place to raise a family and a dream place to live. Though she had no idea this dream came with environmental baggage. 

The Pease International Tradeport was formerly an Air Force Base. It was the first to become a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) site which meant the base was repurposed into something else, in this case, as a Tradeport. Looking at the Tradeport and 250 business there today you would never know it was a former Air Force base. 

In May 2014, Amico was devastated after reading in the newspaper that there was a high level of PFAS contamination in a well which supplied drinking water to the Pease International Tradeport. Because her children attended daycare and her husband worked at the Tradeport, they were among those who were drinking contaminated water every day. The source of contamination was from the Airforce using fire fighting foam which was laced with these chemicals. The chemicals then seeped into the ground, creating high levels in drinking water. Amico felt extremely guilty as a mother about putting her kids in a daycare where they were faced with an environmental threat. 

After reading the newspaper, she began doing research on her own to find out more about PFAS, though there was not much information available in 2014. What information she could find concerned her. Amico learned that these contaminants can accumulate, cause cancer, and impact different systems in the body. After the May 2014 article came out, the local and state government held a community meeting and essentially downplayed the severity of the situation. Because Amico knew about the dangers, she had to do something. She said her family was “poisoned without permission.”

When the movement started, the threats that Amico’s community was facing were being called contaminants of emergent concern. No one could tell her much about what their effects were or what she should do. The lack of answers propelled her because as a determined person she could not accept “we don’t know.” Amico did not have any previous experience in advocacy. It was uncomfortable, at first, for her, but she refused to give up the fight. She began engaging with the health department about blood testing. The department was initially responsive, but then completely stopped responding to her questions. In January of 2015, in a last ditch effort, she went to the media. The local paper published her story on the front page where she urged for blood testing. The article led to a chain reaction and jump started the movement. The media has been critical in raising awareness and holding people accountable for not doing what they should be doing.

“I didn’t have a choice…I could not sleep at night letting this go”…“I couldn’t live with myself not trying to find answers.”

At the time, Amico was connected to Stephen Lester, CHEJ’s Science Director. He helped her as a mentor, and encouraged her to always listen to her intuition and instincts. His valuable advice guides her to this day, and she said being told that was very empowering. 

“I think people who are most affected by environmental contamination have the solutions…they don’t need to be scientists, they don’t need to be experts, we know what we need.”

Testing for Pease, where Amico is Co-Founder, came about after the story was published and pushed elected officials to respond to the request of blood testing. Around 2015/2016, 2,000 people were tested for PFAS and the results showed that resident’s levels were elevated, compared to the national average. Amico then asked what the next steps were now that they knew about their elevated levels, but still no one had an answer. She was told that there are not enough health studies to know the effects on humans. This led to the community connecting with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) for a health study.

An issue was who was going to pay for the study. The Air Force was to blame for the contamination, so residents believed they should pay. The Air Force did not have a mechanism to pay for any studies which led to Senator Jeanne Shaheen to create an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act that would give the Department of Defense the authority to fund the health study. This was unprecedented and never done before. Pease is now the pilot for multisite PFAS studies through ATSDR.

There are currently two active studies, the ATSDR and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Pease Study and an immune function study on children by the Silent Spring Institute to learn about PFAS levels and the effectiveness of vaccines. A concerning effect of PFAS exposure is its potential to make vaccines less effective and suppressing the immune system. This is extremely important research, especially during COVID-19 times.

Blood testing led to studies, which led to filtration of water, which led to clean up of contamination. It was all a domino effect from Amico’s article. Amico is looking forward to the completion of the health studies and hopes to see medical monitoring for people exposed to PFAS since there is no current path or plan for doctors about how to treat people who have been contaminated.