Colorado’s drinking water contains dangerous levels of PFAS, the EPA says

More than one hundred sources of drinking water across Colorado – ranging from cities and counties to elementary schools and campgrounds – contain what are now considered potentially dangerous levels of PFAS, toxic “forever chemicals” linked to a range of health problems. health, 2020 data Shows.

And many other sources of drinking water across the state are likely to be similarly contaminated but have not yet been tested, experts say, which is cause for concern and immediate action.

Not only should water officials in Colorado and the rest of the country increase testing efforts, but they should also invest in new ways to clean drinking water, identify sources of contamination, and eliminate products that use harmful compounds.

“There really isn’t a safe level of these chemicals,” Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, told the Denver Post.

PFAS, a large chemical group containing thousands of different specific compounds, are linked to cancer, birth defects, diabetes and autoimmune problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency drastically reduced its levels of health advice for chemicals last month. These levels are intended as a preliminary warning as the EPA develops more formal and enforceable regulations for compounds.

Previously acceptable levels for two types of chemicals, one called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and another called perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), were 70 parts per trillion. But on June 15 the EPA lowered those levels to 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.

For context, 1 part per trillion equals a single drop of chemicals in 500,000 barrels of water, Thornton officials said in a statement.

Federal officials recommend that any water supplier with PFAS concentrations above those traces should notify their customers, EPA spokesman Rich Mylott said. But that notification isn’t specifically required, Mylott said.

A cycle of state-funded PFAS tests in 2020 showed that more than 100 public sources of drinking water in Colorado have concentrations of chemicals. According to the old EPA standard of 70 parts per trillion, most of these sources have fallen well below the federal health advice level. Under the new EPA standards, however, none of them do.

“Almost all of them will pass the new levels of health counseling,” Birnbaum said.

Thornton announced Monday that his drinking water had a PFOA concentration over 1,000 times the new EPA level. City officials called it a concern but not a crisis.

But Thornton is not alone. Arapahoe County, Aurora, Brighton, Crowley County, Sterling, Englewood, Frisco and Lafayette are among those water suppliers that have shown high levels of the compounds, according to data collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Schools, campgrounds, and fire districts also have high levels.

Despite the 2020 test results, no action is yet required from water suppliers with high PFAS levels. The new EPA guidelines are not legally enforceable and the agency is not expected to propose its more formal regulations until the end of the year. Finalizing these new regulations could take several years, Birnbaum said.

Greater federal and local scrutiny of the PFAS is good but overdue, said Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard. Scientists, regulators and the companies that produce these chemicals have been aware of the risks involved for years or decades.

“This is quite scary when you see these low numbers and realize that almost everyone is exposed to these amounts,” said Grandjean.

Broadly speaking, the experts agreed that four things must now happen. First, further tests are needed to detect contaminated drinking water.

While Thornton has already warned his customers about the chemicals, other places are awaiting further testing.

For example, in 2020 an Aurora drinking water source was tested 800 times higher than the new federal levels for PFOA and 105 times higher for PFOS.

Rory Franklin, a spokesperson for Aurora, said the city has since improved its ability to clean its water of compounds, but “until we complete our current test cycle, we don’t have the data to prove that we are. improved “.

Additionally, test equipment is often not sensitive enough to detect such small, yet potentially dangerous, traces of PFAS, said Timothy Strathmann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

While tests from the past two years have not detected any PFAS in Colorado Springs Utilities water, spokesperson Jennifer Jordan noted that the utility “is not aware of the test technology that allows for accurate testing below 2.0. parts per trillion “.

This is still 500 times higher than the EPA health advice level for PFOA and 100 times higher for PFOS.

Colorado Springs Utilities is “awaiting further guidance” from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment on how to better test its water, Jordan said.

CDPHE officials did not answer questions about the likelihood of new test rounds or how they plan to overcome that technology barrier.

After new rounds of water tests, suppliers who find contaminants must then clean their water, Birnbaum said. A method that uses granular activated carbon can remove some of the compounds, but new ways are needed to clean water of other types of chemicals, he said.

Cleaning or filtering water takes time and money, Grandjean added. In the short term, people concerned about their water, especially those who are pregnant, nursing or raising small children, can purchase their own filters.

To ensure the water remains free of contaminants, however, officials must also track down sources of contamination and clean them up, Grandjean said. This is another huge and expensive undertaking.

At the same time, Arlene Blum, a scientist and executive director of the California-based nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute, said lawmakers must work to reduce the amount of PFAS used in everyday products. Not only do the products themselves expose people to harmful chemicals, but the factories that produce them are also important sources of pollution.

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