The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new stricter guidelines for two perfluorinated chemicals: PFOA and PFOS. The agency said the new limits were to provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure to the chemicals that have been linked to adverse health effects, including cancer.
In Colorado, three water districts were found to have the chemicals in their systems. Does their location near a military base offer clues to the source?
Frani: Last Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new health advisory for two perfluorinated chemicals: PFOA and PFOS. The manmade chemicals are found in a dizzying array of consumer products from nonstick cookware, to cosmetics, to carpets, to waterproof jacketsand even food wrappers. They’ve also been a component for decades in firefighting foams used at airports and military bases.
This new announcement replaces a previous advisory set in 2009 and reflects the agency’s concerns about studies linking the chemicals to low birth weights in babies as well as to conditions such as kidney cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid disease.
The previous guideline recommended a drinking water limit for PFOA and PFOS of 400 and 200 parts per trillion, respectively.
Now the EPA says that if both chemicals are found in drinking water, the limit should be 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals combined. This dramatic shift has left some water managers reeling.
Roy Heald: None of our wells can meet the new health advisory. We’ve got twenty-five wells that we own and another seven that we lease and none of those comply.
That’s Roy Heald, General Manager of Security Water and Sanitation near Colorado Springs. Earlier this year testing had shown wells in Security to have levels above the 2009 limit, causing the district to shut down facilities and start making adjustments to meet the standard. But this new advisory?
Roy: It’s like ten percent of what it used to be. We just weren’t prepared for that.
Frani: Heald was anticipating a guideline closer to 100 parts per trillion—but that said, he’s counting his blessings. Just three weeks ago Security started receiving water from something called the "Southern Delivery System." It’s a regional project that brings Arkansas River water north to Colorado Springs.
Roy: We can almost meet all of our supplies with surface water, which is only possible now because we brought southern delivery online. So that’s been a godsend for us.
Frani: But that gift might only give part of the year. Heald is bracing himself for peak summer demand.
Roy: We’re going to do everything we can to minimize the introduction of well water into the system but we can’t meet peak days without using well water.
Frani: And using well water means trying to find ways to dilute it or “mix” it to keep levels below the new health limit. His team is planning to install new pipes this summer that will make it easier to blend water. But it will be challenging, and in addition to looking at new potential treatment options, he’ll be asking his customers to step up.
Roy: We’re going to try to institute some voluntary conservation measures to try to shave those peaks off the peak days, but we're going to try to keep as much surface water in the entire system as we can.
Frani: Security is one of three utilities in the state of Colorado to find the chemicals in their water. The other two are nearby Widefield and Fountain. All three draw water from the Widefield Aquifer.
And while Widefield Water District also relies on well water, its system configuration allows it to blend water to keep it below the new advisory. As for Fountain...
Curtis Mitchell: For Fountain, we’re in a little bit of a different position compared to our partners at Security and Widefield. We’re farther south at the southern end of the Widefield Aquifer. Our wells are still under the revised number.
Frani: That’s Curtis Mitchell, Utilities Director for the City of Fountain. He said now with Southern Delivery System it would be very unlikely that he'll have to use his wells.
Instead, he’s looking down the road at a pilot treatment facility. That’s because PFOA and PFOS are called extremely persistent chemicals, meaning they don’t break down. Even though he doesn’t have a problem with PFOA and PFOS in his system now, it doesn’t mean he won’t in the future as they build up in the environment.
Curtis: It’s persistent and even if the source is stopped...So if the source was the airport we’re talking a decade or more before we would see it move through the aquifer and we would potentially see any reductions. So we know that. We understand that.
Frani: He’s referring to the nearby Colorado Springs Municipal Airport and Peterson Air Force Base. The military is in the midst of a massive review of over 600 contaminated training sites where firefighting foam containing PFCs was used. Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is on the list and was recently accelerated so a preliminary assessment is due out next month.
Of all the water providers in the state of Colorado only the districts near Peterson had PFOA and PFOS in their water.
Curtis: It’s also a bit an anomaly. You look in the state of Colorado and really we’re it. That’s why it’s so important to figure out what’s going on here? Where is this coming from?
Frani: Although many suspect firefighting foam as the source of contamination in Security, Widefield and Fountain, associating that with Peterson or the airport will take a thorough investigation, which could take years. Until then, these three utilities will be doing some fire fighting of their ownfiguring out how to keep the water flowing and making sure it’s safe to drink.
Related—H2O Radio's reporting on PFCs:
"Known Unknowns: The Toxic Chemicals Swirling Through Your Veins and Why It Didn’t Have
to Be This Way" (April 2016)
"Unregulated Chemicals Found in Drinking Water Trigger Nationwide Testing" (March 2016)