With new 'forever chemical' advisories, experts are mixed on danger

Stricter standards for PFAS present worries for Thornton, Westminster


With the potential for tighter federal standards for so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking water, state officials and experts disagree over whether any amount is safe to ingest.

Erin Garcia, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the EPA’s health advisories pointed to the long-term risk of those chemicals, known as PFAS and PFOS.  The Environmental Protection Agency released a new advisory on June 15, setting a limit at 0.0004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS. 

“These new health advisory levels are not an immediate public health risk, unlike other contaminants such as E. coli," she wrote in an email. "People do not need to stop drinking their water at this time. (The) EPA’s health advisories are 'lifetime advisories,' meaning they offer protection for people from adverse health effects resulting from exposure throughout their lives to these four PFAS in drinking water."

John Adgate, professor in the Colorado School of Public Health Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, offered a different answer.

“I’d never use the word safe to describe this,” he said. “Everything comes with a risk. The goal should be to get the levels as low as possible. ”

It's the water

The state's own testing data shows that the chemicals are prevalent.

In 2020, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tested 400 Colorado water systems, 15 firefighting districts and 43 streams and found 34% of drinking water systems tested had some level of PFAS in the water. 

In the Colorado health department's 2020 survey, it found 71 surface water samples had concentrations as high as 257 parts per trillion for 18 different kinds of PFAS. 

In April 2022, the department released a report indicating that bodies of water in El Paso, Adams and Jefferson counties were contaminated with PFAS. CDPHE collected 49 fish representing 10 different species from Willow Springs Pond in El Paso County,  Tabor Lake in Jefferson County and Mann-Nyholt Lake at Adams County's  Riverdale Regional Park. They found PFAS in 100% of the fish they collected. 

Recently, the Colorado Sun reported through biosolids, PFAS have been spread over Colorado farms

City responses

The EPA's new health advisory reduced the amount basically to zero and that put Thornton and other municipalities in a difficult position,  according to Todd Barnes, spokesperson for the City of Thornton.

According to Barnes, updating and upgrading water treatment plants to detect the new levels – should the health advisory turn into regulations – will be costly. He noted that most scientific equipment can't detect levels that low.

Westminster Spokesperson Andy Le said the city has not detected PFAS water contamination and has received no direction from CDPHE to notify the community.  The same is true with Northglenn, city representative Diana Wilson said. 

Long lasting chemicals

Adgate noted that PFAS take a long time to break down and the fluorine carbon bond in PFAS do not break down easily.  He referenced the National Academy of Science’s recent report on guidance for PFAS, which found sufficient evidence of decreased antibody response, abnormal blood cholesterol levels, decreased infant and fetal growth and increased risk of kidney cancer in adults.

The Academy's study also found limited evidence for increased risk of breast cancer in adults, liver enzyme alteration in adults and children, increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, increased risk of testicular cancer in adults, thyroid disease and dysfunction in adults and an increased risk of ulcerative colitis in adults. 

The Academy's study suggested doctors and health professionals advise patients to filter their water. It notes people can be exposed to the chemicals in myriad ways, including drinking water, consuming contaminated fish or game and breathing in the chemicals.

The study recommends identifying people and communities with high exposures to PFAS and improving environmental health education for clinicians and the public to prevent exposure. The study also recommended labs that test water for PFAS should report results to state public health authorities to improve exposure surveillance. 

PFAS, water treatment, EPA, water quality, pollution


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