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Toxic 'forever chemicals' found above new safe limit guidelines in more than 100 Colorado drinking water utilities. Now what?

CBS Denver 9/23/2022 Kati Weis

More than 100 public drinking water systems in Colorado found levels of "forever chemicals" in their drinking water systems that the EPA now says are unsafe, according to public testing records. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says it's working with those systems to address the issue, but for some districts, the mitigation process will be a costly one — one that could mean higher water bills for customers. 

The chemicals can be found in all sorts of household products, from cookware to jackets, and they're also used by industries, airports, and the military. Because of that, the chemicals have seeped into the drinking water supply of tens of thousands of people across the state. 

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to make rules about safe limits for the chemicals — known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — in drinking water. Experts say those changes are important to protect everyone's health. PFAS are also called "forever chemicals," because they don't easily break down in the body or the environment and can cause a host of health problems, including thyroid and liver issues, increased cholesterol, and cancer, according to the state. 

As part of the preparation process for legal changes, the EPA drastically changed its health advisory guidelines for two PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — from 70 parts per trillion for both combined, to now less than one for each. The new limits are so low, most laboratories can't even test for that small of an amount.

"Came as a stark surprise," said Martin Kimmes, the water treatment and quality manager for the vity of Thornton's water. "We were anticipating something maybe in the single digits, up to maybe 10 PPT."

Kimmes say one part per trillion is equivalent to one drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

"I think that does speak to how potentially dangerous these chemicals might be," Kimmes said. 

Thornton is one of 32 water districts in Colorado that are currently working with the state health department to retest for the soon-to-be-regulated PFAS compounds, and are in the process of informing water customers about any elevated levels. 

Toxic 'forever chemicals' found above new safe limit guidelines in more than 100 Colorado drinking w 03:48 © Provided by CBS Denver Toxic 'forever chemicals' found above new safe limit guidelines in more than 100 Colorado drinking w 03:48

But more than half the water districts across Colorado aren't testing for PFAS, and 76 water districts that previously found elevated levels of PFOA and/or PFOS in voluntary testing efforts have not responded to the CDPHE's "multiple notifications emails to request additional sampling," according to public documents obtained by CBS Colorado. For now, that's totally legal, because the EPA still only has guidelines in place, there's no actual law forcing water districts to test and remove PFAS from their water. Within a year, that's expected to change, the guidelines will become rules, and all water districts in Colorado will need to begin testing and mitigation as necessary. 

The city of Thornton is already preparing. The city's voluntary testing found a PFOA level 7.1 parts per trillion, and a PFOS level of 3.5 parts per trillion at one of the city's two water treatment plants. The city sent out this letter to residents notifying them of what's been found. 

"I think it's just the right thing to do," said Todd Barnes, the city's communications director. "The old health advisory was 70 parts per trillion, and we've been measuring at like five or seven so we were a 10th of what the health advisory levels were at that time, and they've gotten to a level that we weren't prepared for everything to go down to, but when that happens, as a water provider, you have to be nimble. You have to be willing to say, 'hey, this is the current situation.' There's no reason not to tell people."

He says the city has secured a state grant to do more testing, and they're drafting plans to update their water treatment plants, but to get PFAS levels down to the new recommended health limits will cost the city $10 million. Kimmes says the city's hopeful for federal grant money to help pay for that, but if there isn't enough grant money available, some costs may have to be passed on to customers. 

The new federal infrastructure bill provides about $10 billion for PFAS testing and mitigation, but at a cost of $10 million to update filtration systems, which would only pay for about 1,000 water districts nationwide to get proper system updates to make drinking water safe. Colorado will see about $321 million of that, which could pay for about 32 districts to get updated filtration systems.

But voluntary testing records show at least 87 water districts across Colorado have found levels at or above 1 part per trillion for either or both of the two soon-to-be regulated PFAS compounds, and over 100 found levels less than one, but still higher than the EPA's new safe guidelines. 

That could mean dozens of water districts may not have enough government support to make their drinking water completely safe, meaning those costs could be put on water customers instead.

The state health department's safe drinking water program manager Ron Falco cautions that not all districts will need sophisticated filtration systems to mitigate PFAS levels. 

"Some may be able to balance their different water supply portfolios to address it, so like maybe shut off a particular source or use less of it," Falco said. "We think it's a great chance for water systems to get testing done. They can get it done for free, and then kind of learn about what they might need to do going forward."

Falco says the state also has a PFAS cash fund, from fees collected on fuel transport, which will help pay for more widespread testing measures statewide, as well as efforts to identify PFAS pollution sources.

"We'll be getting a lot more information as time as time goes forward," Falco said.

As to the 76 water districts yet to respond to CDPHE's requests for additional testing, Falco says, "we're in the process of working with those systems, and I think it's really just kind of a measured approach of working through this, because there's a fair amount to do... So that's what we're working through with all these systems: An assessment phase, an information phase for the public, and then also a reduction phase, and so that does take time."

In the meantime, is the water safe to drink? State toxicologist Dr. Kristy Richardson says yes, but some at-risk groups like pregnant women and younger children should consider using filters at home.

"Reducing your exposure will reduce your risk over a lifetime," Richardson said. "I think first and foremost this is a concern and not a crisis situation, and that's because these lifetime health advisories are to protect across a lifetime. That's really important to keep in mind... the health effects linked to PFAS exposure can take years of exposure for you to build up levels in your body to cause those potential health impacts."

She advises talking to your doctor if you have further concerns. 

The CDPHE also provided some resources for water drinkers. To read more about PFAS and your health, including recommended at-home water filters, click here.

To learn more about PFAS sources and rules in Colorado, click here.

To check previous voluntary PFAS testing in Colorado, and search for the results found in your water district, click here

To read more about the health advisories set by the EPA, and the agency's next steps on PFAS, click here

The EPA issued the following written statement regarding PFAS:

"PFAS compounds have been widely used across broad categories of consumer and industrial products and do not readily breakdown in the environment. As a result, we are seeing the widespread occurrence of these chemicals across our states and communities, including in the groundwater and surface waters used as sources by some drinking water systems.  Colorado is no exception.  We recognize this is a massive undertaking, and EPA's effort to deploy research and funding to address the wide range of PFAS compounds present in our environment reflects the extent of the challenge.   

EPA has made addressing PFAS a priority, and the Agency's national strategy for these compounds reflects an across-the-board response in terms of resources and programs. Much more here: https://www.epa.gov/pfas 

This includes investments in research to better understand health impacts, improve analytical methods and treatment technologies, and develop science-based advisory levels and regulations, as well as actions to address sources of these compounds that represent known or potential exposure pathways for people.  This effort encompasses air, land, water and drinking water programs.  For example, EPA is currently taking public comment on a proposal to add PFOA and PFOS to the list of hazardous substances under the Superfund law, which would allow us to begin looking at these chemicals as contaminants requiring attention through Superfund site cleanup programs. More here: https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-proposes-designating-certain-pfas-chemicals-hazardous-substances-under-superfund 

In terms of the most pressing PFAS challenges, drinking water is a priority.  We are seeing needs across all our states for financial and technical support for sampling and actions to reduce or eliminate exposure."

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