Some residents of Security, Widefield, and Fountain have elevated levels of potentially toxic chemicals in their blood, according to new research by the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado School of Mines. The chemicals, from a family of compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are believed to have leached into the Widefield aquifer from firefighting foams once used at Peterson Air Force Base. The aquifer has long been an important source of drinking water for southern El Paso County.
Researchers tested the blood of 220 residents in Security, Widefield, and Fountain, and discovered PFAS levels well above the national average. One compound, known as PFHxS, was detected at rates 10 times greater than normal. Rates of PFOS and PFOA -- the two best-known chemicals in the PFAS family -- were also higher in El Paso County residents when compared to the national average.
“PFHxS, while a member of this family of compounds, seems to be enriched in firefighting foams,” said John Adgate, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and the principal investigator on the National Institute of Health-funded study in El Paso County. “As a consequence, that’s really the chemical that shows up in our sampling. It shows up in the drinking water -- the raw drinking water that was used in the past -- and it shows up in people’s blood.”
Researchers say this finding further supports the idea that contamination is related to firefighting foams.
PFAS are currently unregulated, though the Environmental Protection Agency has established guidelines for municipalities regarding safe levels of PFOS and PFOA, the most well-studied of the chemicals. While studies have shown links between exposure to certain PFAS and cancer, birth defects, and other health effects, public health officials say more research is needed to make those connections conclusively.
Adgate acknowledged that there’s still a lot to learn about the safety of these chemicals and the impacts of long-term exposure. Part of the purpose of his study is to further examine possible health effects of the chemicals. But he said scientists know that, “in the long run, we want exposure to be as low as possible.”
Adgate and his fellow researchers laid out the results of their study for residents at a public meeting Thursday night in Fountain. He pointed out that the particular chemical found to be most elevated in the blood of El Paso County residents -- PFHxS -- is even less well-understood than other PFAS. As such, he said, “this sort of qualifies as an unfortunate natural experiment.”
Blood testing is just the first step in the study, which will look further at signs of immune function and other health markers among participants in the year to come. In an interview with 91.5 KRCC, Adgate said that understanding the effects of PFAS exposure will take time, which he said can be “unsatisfying” to those who have elevated levels of the chemicals in their blood.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to have perfect answers [about the health effects],” he explained. “I think what’s more important is to reduce exposure as low as possible -- to try to help people that way -- and to look for opportunities to intervene as best we can around other potential sources [of PFAS contamination].”
With the aid of money from the Air Force, Security, Widefield, and Fountain water districts have added filtration systems and modified their water supply since the EPA released a new health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in 2016. Recent sampling shows water from the districts no longer exceeds health advisory levels.