Study finds elevated levels of PFAS chemicals in blood of Security-Widefield residents

Dan Boyce/CPR News
The Security water tower stands over the town, July 29, 2019. Until a new water treatment center is finished to appropriately filter PFAS, the local water district will continue to buy water from nearby Colorado Springs.

People living in and around Security-Widefield south of Colorado Springs have high levels of certain types of PFAS in their blood. That's the result of a study into the chemicals by the CDC, launched in 2019. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and are considered "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the environment.

The new report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessed exposure to the chemicals using blood and urine samples from residents, comparing it to national levels. The findings included elevated levels of two types of PFAS - perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) - at 6.8 and 1.2 times the national levels, respectively. Other PFAS were not higher than the national average or were detected too infrequently to compare to national averages, according to the report.

The report blames the levels on past exposure from drinking water, before local districts began treating the water in 2017. That's when the Widefield Water and Sanitation District began treating contaminated wells. The Security Water District currently uses uncontaminated surface water sources. 

The EPA says public drinking water in the area "currently meets or is below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 health advisory (HA)." The agency does not recommend community members use alternative sources of water.

Nearly 350 people participated in the study, including 28 children. The Security-Widefield site was one of several involved in the nationwide study, some of which are ongoing. 

Researchers found the concentration of chemicals higher for older participants, with males having higher blood levels of PFHxS and PFOS than females. The longer a child was breastfed also contributed to higher levels of the chemicals when compared to non-breastfed children, though the study also says the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks for infants exposed to PFAS in breastmilk. The study also says infants born to mothers exposed to PFAS can be exposed in utero. 

PFAS was first detected in drinking water in the Security-Widefield area in southern El Paso County in 2013, though the CDC says contamination likely began earlier. It's the result of firefighting foam used in training exercises at Peterson Air Force Base as long ago as the 1970s. The chemicals entered the ground and moved into groundwater in the surrounding area, affecting municipal wells. 

Exposure to PFAS can lead to an increased risk of fertility problems, high cholesterol and certain cancers. 

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced an available $1 billion in grant funding for communities on the frontlines of PFAS contamination. The agency also issued new health advisories for PFAS, "indicating that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time."    

Liz Rosenbaum, founder of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, said the change is a great leap for working families across the U.S.

"The next step it to put teeth behind this so we have enforceable standards instead of an advisory," she said.

Residents living in and around Security-Widefield can attend a virtual information session to learn more about the results of the assessment at 6 p.m., on June 28. Experts will also answer questions.

Click here to register.

There will also be in-person meetings at the Security Public Library, 715 Aspen Drive, on June 29 at the following times:

  • June 29 from 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.; 12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.; and 4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. and on June 30 from 9:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. 

An online session will take place from 12:00 - 1:00 p.m on July 1.

Sign up here.