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EPA’s new PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ could have implications for Colorado

Fed agency issues long-awaited mandatory drinking water caps for the toxic chemical
The Denver Fire Academy is visible through a fence from the road Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, in Commerce City, Colorado. Firefighting foam used here up until 2018 is suspected to be linked to the discovery of PFAS, or “forever chemicals” found in city’s groundwater. (Brittany Peterson/AP Photo)

The EPA on Tuesday slashed the amount of PFAS “forever chemicals” allowed in local drinking water, amounting to strict marching orders for at least 20 Colorado communities that may need to add expensive filtration systems to remove the toxins.

Environmental groups and scientists hailed the draft EPA rules for containing damage from PFAS that finally arrived Tuesday after months of delays. PFAS encompasses a group of thousands of fluorinated chemicals employed in waterproofing and coatings and used in firefighting foam and consumer products from carpets to jackets to toothbrushes.

But the lowering of the drinking water standard from a guideline of 70 parts per trillion for some forms of PFAS to a hard-and-fast rule of four parts per trillion means some communities, including the South Adams County Water and Sanitation District, must boost their filtration. South Adams has said it needs a new $130 million treatment plant to eliminate PFAS and another industrial contaminant, and has bought clean supplies from Denver Water to supplement water served to 65,000 people.

South Adams started plans for a new treatment plant in early 2022, district manager Abel Moreno said in an email. The agency has been “preparing for this announcement for some time and is proceeding full speed ahead with designing and obtaining funding for additional treatment facilities to meet the eventual maximum contaminant level,” he said.

The district’s water does meet current standards in effect while the EPA finalizes the draft for the lower limits announced Tuesday, he said.

A state PFAS testing program, begun in 2020 and relaunched in 2022, has found “in the 20s” of communities that are far enough over the new EPA limit that they most likely need to take action, said Ron Falco, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s safe drinking water program manager.

Advocates of tougher PFAS regulation urged the EPA and other federal agencies to make grants and low-cost loans available to local water districts to build new systems. Billions of dollars for drinking water were included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“It is about time that the EPA takes action on PFAS but we can’t stop here,” said Chandra Rosenthal, Rocky Mountain director for the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The Colorado public needs to continue to push our state agencies for stronger regulations and accountability for polluters who have contaminated our water and jeopardized public health.”

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about PFAS circulating after the EPA announcement:

What exactly is PFAS and why is it everywhere?

PFAS forever chemicals are a family of waterproofing and coating chemicals developed in the 1950s and 1960s, and used in countless consumer and industrial products ever since. Many were developed by DuPont and 3M. The thousands of variants of PFAS are very good at fireproofing, waterproofing and lubricating. They have been used in rainproof hiking jackets, cosmetics and toothbrushes, carpets and linens, firefighting foam and protective gear. Some of the same qualities that make them useful also mean they take years to degrade, if at all. They tend to wash off airport runways, firefighting training centers and manufacturing plants and into waterways. Nearly every fish tested at popular Colorado fishing spots tested positive for PFAS.

What is the new EPA drinking water standard for PFAS?

The EPA now says the maximum contaminant levels for two common versions of the chemical, PFOA and PFOS, are four parts per trillion. The previous standard was only guidance for local agencies, and was set much higher at 70 parts per trillion. A handful of states preceded the EPA in setting a tougher standard. The EPA in March also set a “hazard index” for four other PFAS chemicals if their combined measurements pass a threshold.

The EPA has until 2024 to finalize the new drinking water standard, though it could do so before that, and activists want them to. The agency usually gives local water departments three to five years after that to come into compliance, said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for EWG.

Are there PFAS forever chemicals in my town’s drinking water?

PFAS are found almost everywhere, and so there’s a decent chance they’re in your drinking water. Colorado health officials sponsored a new round of testing for local water agencies in 2022, and found dozens that were showing over the new four parts per trillion EPA limit in drinking water. Towns with the worst problems are diluting contaminated sources with cleaner water, buying clean water from other agencies, and planning new treatment facilities. You can check the state’s map here, with embedded test results for your community and instructions on how to use the site.

Should I be filtering my tap water for PFAS?

Since the ultimate goal of the EPA is for zero detectable PFAS in drinking water, people who have checked the state database or their water agency’s website and found contamination above four parts per trillion might want to consider additional filtration. Not all simple home filter pitchers, like the ones issued by Denver Water to reduce lead contamination, also filter out PFAS, so make sure to read all labels and literature carefully. An under-sink reverse osmosis system is the gold standard for home filtration, but it’s also expensive. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that has done extensive work on chemical hazards, has a guide to home water filtration.

Should I get my blood tested for PFAS?

Human blood tests show 98% of the public has measurable amounts in their bloodstream. PFAS has been linked to damage to women’s reproductive systems, human immune systems and can cause cancer. Environmental advocates suggest that people who know they have been exposed through their work, or contaminated drinking water, or other means should talk to their doctor about getting tested.

What is Colorado doing about PFAS?

Colorado health officials were among those pushing the EPA to hurry and set a mandatory drinking water standard, saying they might do it themselves as other states have done if the EPA did not act quickly. Colorado has used federal grants to help local water agencies test for PFAS, and continues to work with those with higher results to formulate plans for new filtration. Colorado is also helping to channel federal grants for clean drinking water infrastructure from bills passed by Congress in 2021 and 2022.

Colorado has an ongoing buyback program for local fire departments to turn in tainted firefighting foam and replace it with more benign materials.

The state legislature last year ordered the phaseout of sales of certain consumer goods containing PFAS, and those restrictions will phase in during coming years. Consumer advocates want all states to go further and put pressure on manufacturers to stop using PFAS altogether whenever possible.

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office has joined other states in suing manufacturers of PFAS to recover the costs of cleaning up water systems and treating human health problems associated with the chemicals.

“It’s really important to get upstream so that the burden is not all on the drinking water agencies,” Benesh said.

What questions are yet to be answered about PFAS and human health?

Researchers are seeking more answers about the human health impact of long-term accumulation of PFAS in the bloodstream, and how much of those chemicals will ever leave the body once ingested.

Colorado officials are still working out rules for handling PFAS in biosolids, which are the fertilizing materials left over after city sewage is gathered and treated before releasing back into waterways. The biosolids have been spread for decades on farms on the Eastern Plains. In other states, biosolids from heavily contaminated watersheds have contributed to high PFAS levels in local groundwater. Colorado has said it will begin requiring biosolids testing before the material leaves sewage treatment plants.

Health departments are also figuring out how to cope with more PFAS waste created when drinking water or sewage water is filtered. The filters themselves will contain PFAS that doesn’t breakdown, and they must be deposited in landfills that are designed not to leak into groundwater.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.