- Courtesy Steve Patterson
- Steve Patterson (back center, bow tie) believes tainted water caused his sister’s cancer.
UPDATE: EPA says it has a plan for PFASs
or Steve Patterson, any decision the Environmental Protection Agency makes around whether to regulate toxic PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water is too little, too late.
That’s apparent when he counts off the family members who he believes have already fallen victim to the Air Force firefighting foam that leached into drinking water sources in Fountain, Security-Widefield and the Stratmoor neighborhood of southeast Colorado Springs for decades.
At least 10 of Patterson’s family members and in-laws, including his father, sister, uncle, cousin and niece, have died from different kinds of cancer. A dozen or so more family members are battling cancer. And recently, his 14-year-old grandson required a kidney transplant.
Not all of these people are related by blood, so it’s unlikely that the high occurrence of disease, predominantly kidney- and colon-related, is purely genetic. But Patterson’s family members share at least one deadly risk factor: They all spent years in an area contaminated by chemicals which, according to a recent report in Politico, the EPA doesn’t plan to limit in drinking water.
“We have a huge family, and it’s only the ones out here [in Stratmoor, Fountain, Security-Widefield],” Patterson says. “Now the ones that live in town, they’re not having that problem. And so that’s how I know it has to be connected.”
The Air Force began using firefighting foam that contained man-made chemicals known as PFASs in the 1970s for training and firefighting purposes. Despite health studies that connected PFASs to cancer, thyroid problems and low infant birth weight, Air Force bases around the country consistently used the firefighting foam for decades.
Evidence that drinking water in the Fountain and Security-Widefield areas was contaminated with the toxic chemicals began to emerge in 2015, and the affected water districts changed sources or added treatment systems to filter out the chemicals. The EPA issued a drinking water advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFASs in May 2016.
But prior to those changes, some groundwater wells in the area had tested at PFAS levels several times that limit. And some of the approximately 65,000 residents had, like Patterson’s family, been exposed to the chemicals for many years.
Patterson’s skeptical that the government will do anything to help longtime residents who’ve suffered still-unknown consequences from the PFAS chemicals that leached into their drinking water.
“It’s not that we’re looking for money. We’re looking for like, who’s going to take care of me?” Patterson says. “I mean, what is it in my system ... what is the government going to do to fix it and help us?”
In December, initial results from a study by the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines showed that Security-Widefield and Fountain residents who had lived in the area for at least three years before 2015 had higher-than-normal levels of three PFAS chemicals in their blood.
Study participants had blood levels of one toxic compound, PFHxS, that were about 10 times as high as U.S. population reference levels. They had about twice as much PFOS, another chemical in the PFAS group, as the general population. Previous studies have linked this chemical to thyroid hormone effects in humans.
And levels of the chemical PFOA — which human studies have linked to cancer — were 40 to 70 percent higher than U.S. reference levels.
As public awareness of widespread PFAS contamination grew (the Air Force has identified approximately 200 sites in the U.S. where the firefighting foam may have been released), anger spread among residents, who called for the Air Force to pay to fix the damage. The EPA drew ire, too, when Politico reported in May 2018 that it had sought to cover up a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated safe levels of PFAS could be as low as 12 ppt.
Then, beginning in June, the EPA toured five cities impacted by PFASs to hear from residents, with the goal of developing a management plan by the fall. The plan has not been officially released, but Politico reported in January that the EPA would not include a legal limit on the amount of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.
Liz Rosenbaum, co-founder of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, was angered and disappointed by the news. “[The EPA] absolutely needs to have mandatory, enforceable regulations to get it out of our drinking water as soon as possible,” she says. “This is an environmental justice issue.”
Rosenbaum says that during a roundtable discussion when the EPA visited Colorado Springs, officials had made it seem like banning PFASs was a possibility. But she points out that the EPA hasn’t issued a drinking water limit for any chemical in more than 20 years. That’s partly due to amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1996, that make it more difficult to regulate contaminants.
Rosenbaum and others suspect that not establishing a PFAS limit for drinking water is also a way for the EPA to avoid implicating the Department of Defense in ongoing and future lawsuits related to contamination.
The Fountain Valley Water Coalition and the Colorado Sierra Club are collaborating on legislation at the state level to ban the use of toxic firefighting foam, Rosenbaum says. While the Air Force has replaced its original formula with a more “environmentally responsible” version that doesn’t accumulate in the body, the new foam still uses different fluorinated chemicals.
Peterson Air Force Base replaced the old foam in all of its emergency response vehicles in 2016, a spokesperson said. The new formula is only used in emergencies, and not during training.
Mark Favors, Patterson’s cousin and a registered nurse who is active in the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, wasn’t particularly perturbed by the news that the EPA didn’t plan to issue a limit on PFOA and PFOS. He argues that what the community really needs is a congressional investigation to hold the Air Force accountable.
“To me, that’s the only way we’re ever going to get to the bottom of all of this,” Favors says.
And the Department of Defense and EPA don’t bear the responsibility alone, he argues: The state Legislature, governor’s office and state and county health departments should have figured out a way to test all of the residents who could have been affected by PFAS contamination.
Favors, whose father passed away from kidney cancer in 2017, now lives in New York and is hoping to get the attention of U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, on PFASs. Some legislators, including U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, have pressured the EPA to take action and have recently questioned why its report, expected last fall, is still not published.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, took a softer stance, telling Politico he wanted the federal government to take action on PFAS, but that “it’s very important that we get as much information as we can and then act appropriately.” He referred to a Department of Defense study expected to take five to seven years.
Patterson, whose niece died of breast cancer in December, has more pressing problems to worry about. His mother was recently diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. She’s now undergoing radiation, and he and his two brothers take turns caring for her.
Patterson has had prostate cancer himself, which is now in remission. But it’s hard not to wonder whether more hardships are in store for him and his family.
He often reflects on his sister, Princess, who died in 2013 from kidney, liver and spine cancer, even after he gave her one of his own kidneys.
“Was my kidney infected? Or is my other one infected?” Patterson wonders. “I’m in limbo... It’s just something that you try not to think about, but you can’t help it.”