Water district managers in Fountain, Security and Widefield acted quickly based on news reports that drinking water there was found to have high levels of chemical contaminants that are linked with health hazards.

The districts are searching for the source of the contamination — and at least one has closed wells in the Fountain Valley as a precaution.

The three systems rely upon water from various sources, including well water, surface water and water transported from Pueblo Reservoir via pipeline.

Not all of the officials from the three water providers returned calls from the Business Journal. In a statement posted on its website, the Security Water and Sanitation District reassured customers that their drinking water is safe and outlined further steps it plans to take to address the problem.

“Security water has always met, and continues to meet or exceed all federal and state drinking water regulatory requirements,” the statement said. “Due to concerns about Perfluoroaklyls [sic] or PFAs, Security has discontinued using several water wells, out of an abundance of caution, until additional testing and analysis can be conducted. There is no need for customers to use Security water any differently than they have in the past. According to the regulatory requirements, the water is safe for personal hygiene, cooking and drinking. We will be posting updates as we conduct additional tests and coordinate with the EPA and the state of Colorado.”

Widefield Water and Sanitation District manager Steve Wilson said PFA levels in Widefield supply wells are far below the EPA’s recommended maximum of .4 parts per billion.

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“We blend water from all of our wells,” he said, “and PFA contaminants are .05 parts per billion. That level is further reduced when the well water is added to Frying Pan/Arkansas project water from Pueblo Reservoir. If, and when, the EPA regulates PFAs and determines an MCL (maximum contaminant level), we’re confident that we’ll comply.”

Wilson wouldn’t speculate about the origins of PFA pollutants in the Fountain Valley.

“PFAs are everywhere,” he said “They’re in the Teflon frying pans you should have thrown away 25 years ago, in tape, in landfills.”

The problem

Last week, the Business Journal reported that water supplied to residents of Fountain, Security and Widefield had high levels of perfluoroalkyls, industrial chemicals classified as “reportable non-regulated contaminants” by the Environmental Protection Agency. It was apparently the first time water district managers heard of the contamination.

Ron Woolsey, head of the Fountain Water District, told the CSBJ the system would move quickly to investigate the contaminants.

“We’re going to investigate further, talk to [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] and figure out what the next step will be,” he said. “Those [PFA substances] sound pretty alarming.”

Although industrial use of these compounds has been curtailed recently, EPA testing discovered 6.5 million Americans in 27 states are exposed to PFA-tainted drinking water. The chemicals have been detected in 94 public water systems — including the three El Paso County systems. But recent studies show that the EPA’s regulations might not be enough to make the water safe.

Recent research from a study published by Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell strongly indicates that PFAs are so toxic that safe levels may be as much as three times lower than current federal regulations. The 2015 Madrid Statement on PFAs by 200 international scientists echoed their concerns. The chemicals are linked to both cancers and birth defects.

Lawsuits in Virginia against DuPont, who used the chemicals in its manufacture of Teflon-coated and Scotchgard materials, represent people in towns with drinking-water PFA contaminant levels that also fall within the EPA’s safe zone.

Contamination

The three systems rely on water from various sources, including well water, surface water and water transported from Pueblo Reservoir via the Fountain Valley pipeline. Once the Southern Delivery System goes online — barring lawsuits from Pueblo — April 27, water from Pueblo Reservoir could eventually replace well water.

Industrial contaminant plumes move slowly through groundwater. Some contaminants break down fairly quickly or can be easily removed in water treatment facilities. Others, such as PFAs, are both extremely stable and relatively difficult to remove. The chemicals do not metabolize in the bloodstreams of people or animals and are pervasive around the globe. They’ve been detected in Alaskan salmon and in the bloodstreams of polar bears.

Despite their presently unregulated status, do minute levels of PFAs in drinking water pose a danger to public health?

Many reputable scientists believe so. The EPA will likely reset its suggested maximum contaminant level for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) later this year. The Madrid Statement cited multiple areas of concern.

“In animal studies, some long-chain PFAs have been found to cause liver toxicity, disruption of lipid metabolism and the immune and endocrine systems, adverse neurobehavioral effects, neonatal toxicity and death, and tumors in multiple organ systems. In the growing body of epidemiological evidence, some of these effects are supported by significant or suggestive associations between specific long-chain PFAs and adverse outcomes, including associations with testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, decreased immune response to vaccines, and reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty.”

EPA response

The Business Journal sent questions about the contamination via email to the EPA’s Washington, D.C., office. The responses are below.

According to your website, EPA detected several kinds of chemicals in drinking water samples from providers in Fountain, Security and Widefield. Water test results found 206 contaminants in 103 samples. 

As of the October 2015 UCMR 3 data summary, there are a total of 206 results for five perfluorinated chemicals (where a particular analyte was measured in a particular sample above the minimum reporting level) for these three water systems.

Did the EPA pay particular attention to these Colorado systems?

EPA is collecting UCMR 3 data for perfluorinated chemicals and other analytes from approximately 5,000 public water systems and will be using the national data set to support the agency’s regulatory determinations.

At a maximum concentration of 1.3 µg/L or ppb, are these levels among the highest of any tested systems?

EPA has established provisional health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, but does not currently have health-based reference concentrations for PFHpA, PFHxS or PFBS.

With regard to the 52 positive results for PFOA, none of the measurements are above the PHA level of 0.4 ug/L.

With regard to the 45 positive results for PFOS, eight of them are above the PHA level of 0.2 ug/L (ranging from 0.21-1.3 ug/L). They are associated with two sample events at Security WSD and one sample event at Widefield WSD.

Given the apparent toxicity of PFA pollutants, should customers of these three utilities be notified of the presence of these contaminants in their drinking water? 

Public water systems are obligated to report positive results to their customers via their annual consumer confidence reports. Any additional notification or action is conducted at the discretion of the PWS [water systems] and the state, since these contaminants are not currently subject to national primary drinking water standards.

In order to ensure our drinking water remains safe and clean, while using the best available science, the EPA has been compiling and evaluating information about the health effects and occurrence of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water in order for the agency to be able to make the determinations for these contaminants.

Can PFOA and PFOS be removed from drinking water by individual or system-wide filtration?

Yes, PFOA and PFOS can be effectively removed from drinking water by implementing treatment at centralized facilities or at point-of-use locations. Treatment technologies proven to be effective in removing PFOA and PFOS from drinking water include activated carbon absorption, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange.