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Colorado Health Department's Water Sampling Finds Water Sources With 'Forever Chemical' Levels

(CBS4) -- The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently announced the results of extensive testing of the state's water sources for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly referred to as PFAS or "forever chemicals."

A coalition of pro-environment organizations, however, criticized the state's report for using "dangerously out of date" guidelines for public health.

The entire family of the chemicals numbers in the thousands, but Perfluorooctane sulfonate and Perfluorooctanoic acid in particular found use in industrial applications and in firefighting foam. The foam was mostly used by fire departments at airports and military bases to smother airplane or jet fuel fires.

Firefighting Foam (from DVIDShub)
A firetruck hoses down a fire during a live-fire training exercise Jan. 24, 2020, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. (credit: Airman 1st Class Andrew Kobialka/366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

The nickname "forever chemicals" is a nod to their resistance to decay.

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The sampling found four groundwater sources where PFAS measured above the 70 parts per trillion limit established as a health guideline in 2016 by the Environmental Protection Agency. Three of the four places were already known to contain unacceptable concentrations -- Stratmoor Hills Water and Sanitation District and Security Water and Sanitation District located on the boundaries of the Fort Carson U.S. Army base south of Colorado Springs, and the Sugarloaf Fire district located in Boulder County. The groundwater from these locations is either not used for drinking or is treated to remove the chemical prior to consumption.

The Fourmile Fire district in Teller County had not previously tested for the chemicals, but tested high in one well. Firefighters told the state the water from it is not consumed. Further testing is underway to determine any impact to residents living nearby.

"The current results show that no drinking water tested above the EPA health advisory for two chemicals," said Kristy Richardson, state toxicologist at the Department of Public Health and Environment. "At the same time, we know science is evolving, and we are committed to using the most current and best available information to provide health-based guidance on exposure to the chemicals. As new studies become available, our understanding of health effects in humans -- and our recommendations -- will continue to be refined."

Samples were taken from surface waters, too, like rivers and streams. These findings were also concerning to the state health department.

Sand Creek
An image of the cleanup effort in Sand Creek (credit: CBS)

"All of the samples collected had some detectable level of the chemicals," CDPHE stated in its news release. "The sample collected at the mouth of Sand Creek in Commerce City was above the EPA drinking water health advisory, but the state isn't aware of anyone directly drinking this affected water. Nonetheless, high levels of the chemicals in streams can impact downstream drinking water supplies since they don't break down."

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Less than a week after the report's release, a group of environmental protection organizations expressed what they called unacceptable levels of "forever chemicals" in the state's findings -- when measured by more the most aggressive standard in the country.

The groups claimed Vermont has made 20 ppt its limit for tolerable PFAS toxicity, and that measure is also being considered for adoption by the state of Massachusetts. If 20 ppt had been used in Colorado's tests, they stated, 10 locations would have treated drinking water above that limit. Those locations include Frisco, Brighton, Golden, Evergreen, Florissant, Guffey, Boulder, Keenesburg and Bailey.

arkansas river rafting deaths
(credit: CBS)

"Instead of comparing water samples against the EPA's outdated PFAS health advisory, Colorado should follow the lead of other states and adopt stronger protections given the significant toxicity of these man-made 'forever chemicals' even at low levels of exposure," said Rebecca Curry of Earthjustice.

The sampling accounted for about half of the drinking water systems in the state serving around three-quarters of the population, according to the state health department. Four hundred water systems and 15 firefighting districts were tested. The work was funded with $500,000 awarded from the state legislature.

Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bill restricting fire departments' use of PFAS in late June.




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