Following a Jan. 14 report in the Business Journal that water in Widefield, Security and Fountain tested positive for high levels of chemical contaminants, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, El Paso County Public Health and the Environmental Protection Agency took the unusual step of issuing a joint press release this week — assuring the public that the water in question “meets the health standards in the Colorado Primary Drinking Water Regulations.”
Water in the three districts tested well above health advisories for the chemical contaminants established by the EPA in 2009, the release said, three of about 94 systems nationwide that also tested positive.
The contaminants are known as perfluorinated compounds or PFCs. The chemicals were created by 3M Corp. and used by DuPont for products like Scotchgard, Teflon and other coating additives, as well as firefighting foams. They do not biodegrade and are pervasive in the environment.
Some studies link the chemicals to cancer and other health problems.
The release assures the public that the water can be used for drinking, bathing, cooking and all other uses. Water systems in the three communities are collecting additional water samples and working with the CDPHE and EPA to make sure PFC levels are below the current health advisory level.
However, the three government agencies issued a warning for residents of Security, Widefield and Fountain to have their water tested if they are on private wells and concerned about the PFC levels.
With its soothing assurances that water contaminated with only minute quantities of PFCs is safe for all uses, the release is meant to alleviate concerns that Fountain Valley residents might have about their drinking water.
But that might not be the case.
While it’s accurate to say that the water “meets the health standards in the Colorado Primary Drinking Water Regulations,” and that “PFCs are not regulated by the EPA at this time,” such standards might not reflect the health risks from exposure to the chemicals. Under federal law, the EPA’s ability to regulate such substances is sharply limited, thanks to the Toxic Substances Act of 1976.
The EPA can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. This provision has effectively allowed chemical companies to self-regulate potential toxins in the environment. Out of the tens of thousands of chemicals that have come to market since 1976, the EPA has only restricted five.
This free-for-all regulatory environment has created wide disparities between American and Western European practices — and not just where drinking water is concerned. As Vanity Fair recently reported, actress Jessica Alba was inspired to create her now billion-dollar startup, The Honest Company, when she discovered that the FDA has banned fewer than a dozen harmful chemicals for household products, whereas in Europe more than 1,300 are deemed unsafe.
Precautions taken, lawsuits filed
Despite lax local, state and federal regulatory practices, water providers in the Fountain Valley area are moving aggressively to eliminate PFCs from drinking water systems. Two of the three systems are slated to replace all their well water sources with PFC-free water from the Southern Delivery System, while officials shut down wells suspected to be the source of PFC contaminants in Security. The water districts are working with EPA to discover the source of the contamination.
Lawsuits related to a class action against DuPont for harmful use of PFCs have been making their way slowly through the courts. Filed on behalf of thousands of residents of Ohio and West Virginia, the suits allege that DuPont is responsible for adverse health effects such as cancer and liver disease from PFC pollution in multiple drinking water systems.
While there are no certain guidelines that specify PFC drinking-water safety levels, the lawsuit against DuPont in West Virginia included anyone whose drinking water had levels above .05 parts per billion.
Water provided to residents of Fountain, Security and Widefield showed a maximum PFC contaminant level of 1.3 ppb, 26 times greater than the cut-off for West Virginia plaintiffs.
The joint release advises Fountain Valley residents to call the local health department at 575-8602 to find EPA-approved laboratories to conduct the testing, since El Paso County Public Health’s laboratory is not able to test for PFCs.
And for residents who want to be extra safe, the three agencies suggest making a trip to Home Depot.
“Studies have shown that certain treatment systems are effective in removing PFCs from drinking water,” the release noted.
“Reverse osmosis has been shown as a reliable under-the-sink treatment option. These devices can be purchased at local home improvement stores. Residents with questions about their public drinking water should contact their local water provider.”
“State and local governments do not have authority over unregulated contaminants such as PFCs,” the release continued. “Since they are not regulated, water providers are not required to treat drinking water or routinely sample for PFCs. However, out of an abundance of caution, the EPA, state and local health agencies are working together with public drinking water systems in the area to understand and address this emerging issue and reduce exposure to PFCs as recommended by EPA.”
In 2005, DuPont settled a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of 70,000 mid-Ohio Valley residents for decades of PFC contamination.
As part of the settlement, DuPont is paying for technology to filter the chemical from six water districts in Ohio.
In addition, the first six of about 3,500 personal injury lawsuits on PFC contamination have been tried in Ohio courts, and all have found in favor of local residents.
More recent studies show that PFC contamination becomes dangerous to human health far below the EPA levels. The Madrid Statement of May 2015, signed by hundreds of scientists throughout the world, called for a ban on the use of the man-made chemicals.