U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Amber Powell
Contamination of El Paso County water supplies stemmed from the military's use of PFAS-based firefighting foam.
Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health will study the health effects of toxic PFAS chemicals — found in firefighting foam used by the military — in residents of El Paso County, thanks to a $1 million federal grant.
Colorado is just one of seven states named in a multisite study
into the health effects of the chemicals. Nationally, the study will recruit "at least 2,000 children aged 4–17 years and 6,000 adults aged 18 years and older who were exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water," according to a statement from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is funding the project along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Colorado School of Public Health, at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver, plans to recruit 1,000 adults and 300 children for the study. Previous research has found that people who lived in the Fountain and Security-Widefield areas, near Peterson Air Force Base, prior to 2015 have higher-than-normal levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood.
The research team will include experts from the Colorado School of Mines, Children’s Hospital Colorado, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the University of Southern California, according to a statement from CU Anschutz.
John Adgate, chair of the school's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and the co-principal investigator on the study, says it's not yet clear which members of the PFAS chemical group will be looked at, but the list will likely include "PFHxS, PFOS and PFOA, as well as a bunch of others."
Most extensive research into PFAS chemicals has so far been focused on PFOS and PFOA, while health effects of other PFAS aren't as well established.
"The El Paso County site is interesting because [the contamination is] mostly from firefighting foams, which results in people having elevated blood levels of what's known as PFHxS and PFOS," Adgate explains.
Adgate and his research team found last year
that study participants who'd been exposed to the contamination had blood levels of PFHxS about 10 times as high as U.S. population reference levels. Levels of this chemical were also higher than those for residents in other communities exposed to PFAS.
That study included 220 blood samples from people who lived in Fountain or Security-Widefield for at least three years prior to 2015, when PFAS-based firefighting foam from Peterson contaminated the drinking water. This time, the study will likely also include people who lived in the Stratmoor Hills area just southeast of Colorado Springs, Adgate says.
Fountain, Security-Widefield and Stratmoor Hills water districts have all switched to different sources or added treatment systems in the past few years, so the public water supplies are now safe to drink.
Unfortunately, though, that doesn't mean residents who've lived in the area for a while no longer have PFAS — often called "forever chemicals" — in their bloodstreams.
"What's unique about this site is that exposure stopped, but people — because of the persistence of these compounds — people still have, I think, relatively high body burdens," Adgate says. "I'd like to think of it as kind of an unfortunate natural experiment, and it's my hope that the results of the study will provide some peace of mind to people in terms of what their levels are and whether or not it affects their health."
The study will examine health factors including lipids, kidney function, liver function, thyroid and sex hormones, glucose and insulin parameters, markers of immune function, and neurobehavioral outcomes in children.
"We are really excited to have Dr. Adgate spearheading this," says Liz Rosenbaum, who leads the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, a citizens' group advocating for clean water. Rosenbaum notes that many of the residents concerned about their exposure have already worked with Adgate to have their blood tested.
Soon, those residents could have a better idea of what the elevated levels actually mean for their health.
Based on conversations with residents, Rosenbaum believes kidney cancer and autoimmune diseases are among the most common health concerns in El Paso County, and those she's spoken with fear their conditions are tied to the PFAS chemicals previously found in public drinking water.
Rosenbaum says she hopes the study will lead to more research — and an eventual federal ban on PFAS in food packaging.
The Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition helped to pass a state bill this spring that restricts fire departments from using PFAS-based foam. As part of that legislation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is holding policy work group meetings
through February to discuss how the state should address the chemicals.
The coalition's "next plan of attack," Rosenbaum says, is passing a state bill that would lengthen the statute of limitations for reporting PFAS contamination.
Lawsuit looms for PFAS manufacturers
Meanwhile, a Colorado Springs law firm is participating in a massive class-action lawsuit meant to hold chemical companies accountable for their role in polluting the environment.
At a recent meeting of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, attorney David McDivitt of McDivitt Law Firm updated attendees on the status of the case.
McDivitt's firm teamed up with Napoli Shkolnik, a personal injury law firm in New York, to file suit against 3M, the manufacturer of the firefighting foam that contaminated water supplies in El Paso County (and at other sites near military installations around the country).
The case was consolidated with other class-action suits concerning PFAS manufacturers and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where District Judge Richard Gergel on Oct. 4 will hear from scientific experts on both sides in an effort to understand the nature of the contamination before hearing arguments.
Gergel has said the case could represent an "existential threat" to 3M, DuPont and other manufacturers named in the lawsuit.
Still, the road ahead won't be easy. One of the plaintiffs' biggest challenges, McDivitt says, will be overcoming the "government contractor defense," which 3M will likely use to say it's not liable for health effects of PFAS products since it was commissioned by the military to make firefighting foam.