Colorado should do more to control PFAS contamination

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Linda Birnbaum, former director of National Institute of Environmental Health“There is growing scientific evidence that the COVID-19 virus disproportionately impacts those with compromised immune systems. Unfortunately, segments of the Colorado public may be more at risk because of long standing contamination from per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals.”

PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and they bioaccumulate in the food chain. They are associated with birth problems and damage to the liver, kidneys, and immune system, as well as cancer risk. The incredible persistence and mobility of PFAS chemicals in the environment also means that even small amounts can effectively contaminate large quantities of ground and surface waters.

Unfortunately, PFAS are also ubiquitous. They are used in the manufacture of an array of consumer goods, including cookware, flame-retardants, waterproofing, furniture and take-out containers. Our military also extensively uses fire-fighting foam containing PFAS, as have many firefighters.

Therefore, it is concerning that PFAS can be found in Colorado’s drinking water. North metro Denver, for example, has recorded high levels in its drinking water. There are also elevated levels of PFAS in the drinking water in the towns of Fountain, Windsor, and Widefield, near Peterson and Buckley Air Force bases. In addition, the Air Force Academy has used firefighting foam containing PFAS and it appears to have contaminated the groundwater and at least two nearby drinking water wells. Similarly, the Boulder Mountain and Sugarloaf Fire Districts in western Boulder County have contamination levels of groundwater wells.

Despite its toxicity, however, PFAS remains largely unregulated. Without adequate testing and standards, we will never know the extent of the contamination. Hopefully, that will soon change. Colorado has taken an important first step by developing a Narrative Policy. This policy allows the state to identify and ultimately halt PFAS discharges into ground and surface water. However, I am very concerned that Colorado will miss an important opportunity for prevention by setting unnecessarily high “translation” levels for ground and surface waters.

On July 13-14, the Water Quality Control Commission will vote on a policy to set discharge limits for PFAS into Colorado waters. I applaud the state for taking this next step and urge the Commission to pass this policy. But we need to go further.

The Commission can also use this opportunity to look to what other states are doing and take steps to follow their leads. At least seven other states have enacted protective measures for drinking water. Vermont has banned PFAS in certain products. Minnesota is recovering hundreds of millions of dollars from polluters so that they can clean up their state. Michigan is also seeking compensation from manufactures. Colorado can build on the work of other states by setting levels for individual chemicals that, at a minimum, match those more protective limits set
in other states.

Colorado cannot depend on the federal government for protection. On March 10, the EPA issued a notice to consider developing regulations, with a timeline pushing out regulation another five years. This year, the National Defense Authorization Act required that facilities report if they manufacture or use any of 172 of the more than 5,000 known PFAS chemicals. Limited reporting is not enough, and Colorado can do more.

As a career public health professional, I am convinced of the importance of preventing PFAS from entering the environment. Their demonstrated toxicity to people and wildlife should compel the state to invest in preventing pollution, rather than paying the long-term price of water treatment and soil removal once contamination occurs.

As a mother and grandmother who has children and grandchildren living in Colorado, I urge the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission to take regulatory steps needed to protect the public. The public health crisis posed by the COVID 19 pandemic underlines the urgency of acting to protect the most vulnerable.”