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What the heck are PFAS and why are ‘forever chemicals’ suddenly a big deal in Colorado?

Officials across the Front Range are taking pre-emptive action to remove these chemicals from water supplies
Posted: 4:01 PM, Feb 03, 2023
Updated: 2023-02-03 19:41:10-05
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DENVER – By now you’ve probably heard of PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals” that are affecting the water supply across the Front Range.

Thornton was one of the first in Colorado to proactively warn its residents about these harmful chemicals in the water supply back in July 2022 (the city has since joined hundreds of other plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit seeking clean-up costs to remove these chemicals from its water) after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised its health advisory levels in June of last year to lower the quantities of acceptable levels of these man-made compounds following new research which showed even very low levels pose a threat to public health.

On Friday, the city of Englewood said it was also now assessing how much PFAS were in their water systems and announced it was working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) on strategies to reduce those levels.

What exactly are PFAS?

PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances), also known as "forever chemicals," are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s because of their useful properties, according to the EPA.

These harmful chemicals are in everything from firefighting foam to cookware (such as nonstick pans), cosmetics, clothing, food wrappers, carpeting, furniture, and more. They can also be present in water, soil, air and food.

Why “forever chemicals”? Because of their properties which make them heat-, stain- and water-resistant and able to stick around long after they’ve been used and discarded, according to Thornton Deputy Attorney Adams Stephens.

Why should I care about PFAS?

Studies have shown that even low levels of PFAS may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals when exposed to large quantities over a long period of time. Some of those harmful effects include:

  • Decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women
  • Development effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes
  • Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney and testicular cancers
  • Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones
  • Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity

While those are just some health effects officials say may be associated with exposure to PFAS, EPA officials say additional health effects that may be linked with these harmful chemicals are difficult to determine because the types and uses of PFAS change over time, which makes it difficult to track and assess how exposure to certain levels and what type of PFAS occur and how they may affect human health.

Officials also say people can be exposed to PFAS in different ways and at different stages of their life, which makes studying their effects difficult to study.  

Why are “forever chemicals” suddenly in the news?

The EPA had set levels for PFAS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion back in 2016. But after they issued new health advisory levels in June of last year, acceptable levels for two of the most widely used PFAS compounds became 0.004 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and 0.02 parts per trillion for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), respectively.

“One part per trillion is the equivalent of one drop of dish detergent in the amount of dish water that would fill a railroad car train ten miles long,” said martin Kimmes, the water treatment and quality manager for the city of Thornton, back in July.

At the time, Thornton levels for PFAS in the water system was 5.4 parts per trillion for PFOA and 7.3 parts per trillion for PFOS – 1,350 times and 365 times the acceptable level now set by the EPA for PFOA and PFOS, respectively.

In Englewood, levels for PFOA and PFOS are 650 times and 95 times above their acceptable levels, respectively.

“There is no immediate public health risk, and people do not need to stop drinking their water at this time,” city of Englewood officials said in a news release Friday.

The challenge with reducing PFAS levels in the water system at the moment? It’s very hard to do – “if not impossible” according to Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, because we currently do not have the technology to measures such low levels as set by the FDA with available technology.

That isn’t stopping the Colorado Department of Transportation from developing strategies to reduce those levels near zero, however.

What is the state of Colorado doing to reduce the levels of PFAS in our water and everyday products?

Gov. Jared Polis has already signed a law banning the use of “forever chemicals” starting in 2024.

House Bill 22-1345 – otherwise known as the Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Chemicals Consumer Protection Act – will establish a regulatory scheme that bans the sale or distribution of certain products that contain intentionally added perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals.

That means items such as carpets, cosmetics, cookware, fabric treatments, food packaging, children’s products, furniture and others would be banned across the state if they have PFAS in them.

The bill does not ban PFAS in solar panels, batteries, semiconductors or medical devices, but would have sweeping changes for consumer products, and an amendment was added to limit the scope of some products affected and exempt industrial kitchens, for instance.

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), from their part, has created an interactive where residents can search their specific communities and find PFAS sampling results associated with drinking water systems. You can view the map below.

What can I do to limit my consumption of these harmful chemicals?

While the state and local jurisdictions take steps to reduce levels of PFAS in water systems, Coloradans can take several measures to lower their exposure to PFAS.

Use an in-home water treatment filter or system that is certified to eliminate the levels of PFAS compounds for drinking, cooking, and preparing baby formula and use tap water for bathing, showering, brushing teeth, washing hands, watering yards, washing dishes, cleaning, and laundry.

Another way to reduce your exposure to “forever chemicals,” officials say, is to reduce the use of consumer products that can contain these harmful man-made compounds. Such products include stain resistant fabrics, carpet, non-stick pans, food packaging, cosmetics, among others.

Lastly, Coloradans concerned about PFAS and the health risk associated with their effects on the human body should consult with their doctor. The CDPHE has a fact sheet about how to approach the subject with your doctor here.

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