Colorado officials announced in early July that drinking water tests in the north Denver metro area found concentrations of perfluorinated chemicals that dramatically exceeded federal safety standards.
Tests conducted by South Adams County Water and Sanitation District officials on 12 municipal wells along Quebec Parkway near I-270 found concentrations of these PFCs at up to 32 times higher than the federal advisory limit.
According to The Denver Post, these wells feed into district water supplies for 50,000 residents across 65 square miles.
What Are PFCs?
Perfluorinated chemicals – or PFCs – have become flashpoints for national debate in recent years. For example, EPA interference in a report documenting the extent to which the nation’s water supply has been contaminated by a subset of PFCs generated intense controversy earlier this year.
PFCs are dangerous in part because they are so widely used. They can be found in basic kitchen appliances, including cookware, clothes, mattresses and food packaging. These chemicals reduce friction, which makes them especially useful in the aerospace and automotive industries, among others.
PFCs are also heavily used in the manufacture of firefighting chemicals and historically were widely used on US military installations. This has been the source of some contaminations across the country, including in Colorado.
Because of the unique nature of these compounds, PFCs (which you might also see referred to as “PFAS”) last a long time in the environment – they do not break down in soil and water. Instead, they move through and contaminate these substances and build up in fish and wildlife.
Why Are PFCs Dangerous?
Once introduced to the human body, PFCs are not stored in body fat. However, it takes several years for even half of the chemical to leave the body.
This is a problem. While scientists continue to do research into the precise effects of PFCs on the human body, early studies are troubling. Some animal studies have found that PFCs disrupt endocrine function, harm the immune system, damage organs and cause damage in-utero offspring.
Human studies have been more inconclusive, and government researchers are still looking into exactly how PFCs can affect our health. However, the EPA is confident enough to establish a PFC advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion.
The Extent of the Problem In The Metro Area
Officials tested 12 municipal wells in the area near I-270. These municipal supply wells feed 2,000 gallons of water a minute into the district’s water supplies, per The Post.
A district spokesman told the newspaper that the concentration of PFCs in these wells ranged from a low of 24 parts per trillion (well below the federal advisory limit) to 2,280 parts per trillion, which is obviously much, much higher than the EPA’s recommendations.
Officials in the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District said they stopped using water from the three wells with the highest concentration of PFCs. The district will also be purchasing water supplies from Denver Water and delivering it through existing pipelines to reduce the PFC concentration.
However, local and federal officials could not immediately identify the source of the contamination and said they were investigating.
Other Problems in Colorado
But while this represents the first case of PFC contamination in the Denver metro area, other parts of the state haven’t been so lucky.
State and federal officials have been trying to grapple with a significant PFC contamination in Pueblo County south of Colorado Springs for more than two years. The suspect in that case was likely Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs – as noted above, PFCs are frequently used in firefighting materials, and military air force bases are well stocked with firefighting foam and other related tool.
These contaminations pose a unique threat to the communities suffering from them – research from the Colorado School of Mines found that standard carbon filters do not completely remove PFCs from groundwater.
Of course, Colorado is not the only state affected by PFC contamination. PFCs have been found in 108 water systems nationwide, including in sites near Seattle and Philadelphia. And with the EPA facing steep budget cuts and an administrative philosophy in which public health is not always the highest priority, it seems likely that state and local governments will have to increase vigilance over their water supplies.