The Problem: PFAS in Drinking Water – Colorado
PFAS, often dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ due to their persistent nature, are a diverse group of synthetic compounds infamous for their resistance to degradation. Some of their variants have been linked to a plethora of health issues including cancer, birth defects, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dramatically reduced its health advisory levels for these harmful chemicals last month, shifting the goalposts for safe drinking water in the country.
In this revised context, the standards for two prominent PFAS types, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), fell sharply from 70 parts per trillion to 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS. To grasp the gravity of these numbers, imagine a single drop of these chemicals in a mammoth 500,000 barrels of water — that’s the equivalent of one part per trillion. But while these new levels serve as a preliminary warning, enforceable regulations for these compounds are still in development.
The Reaction: Response from the Authorities
With these alarming findings, the onus lies with the water authorities in Colorado and beyond to not only increase testing initiatives but also invest in advanced methods to purify drinking water, identify contamination sources, and eradicate products harboring these harmful compounds. However, the challenge is daunting.
Current testing technologies often fail to detect minuscule traces of PFAS, which are still potentially dangerous. Jennifer Jordan, a spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities, emphasized this issue, stating that the utility was “not aware of testing technology that allows for accurate testing below 2.0 parts per trillion.” This level is still hundreds of times higher than the EPA’s health advisory level for PFAS, highlighting a significant gap in testing sensitivity.
Moreover, the mandate for water providers to notify customers of high PFAS concentrations lacks enforcement. Though federal officials recommend such notification, it’s not a strict requirement, leaving consumers in the dark about their water’s safety.
The Impact: Affected Areas
The scope of contamination extends to numerous Colorado areas, with a 2020 state-funded study revealing that over 100 public drinking water sources have concerning levels of these chemicals. From Thornton and Arapahoe County to Aurora and Brighton, the issue has permeated various sectors of Colorado life. Even institutions like schools, recreational facilities like campgrounds, and services like fire protection districts aren’t immune to this crisis.
Thornton, for example, reported PFOA levels in its drinking water that exceeded the EPA’s new threshold by over a thousand-fold. Despite such alarming figures, authorities describe the situation as a concern rather than a crisis, underlining the urgency for stringent, enforceable regulations.
The Future: Anticipated Regulations and Measures
Enforceable regulations are anticipated from the EPA, but the timeline for these is vague, and the process of finalizing them could extend for years. This delay in implementation leaves the populace at risk, necessitating immediate local measures to address the issue.
The Commentaries: Expert Opinions
Experts are unified in their alarm about the situation. Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, stressed that “almost everyone is going to exceed the new health advisory levels,” reiterating the extent of the problem. Timothy Strathmann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, underscored the need for sensitive testing equipment to detect the dangerous traces of PFAS. Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard, emphasized that increased federal and local scrutiny of PFAS is not only good but long overdue.
The Solutions: Recommended Action Steps
Experts agree on a four-step plan. First, the need for enhanced testing is paramount. We must identify the full scope of the contamination before we can begin to address it. For instance, the city of Aurora discovered one source of its drinking water in 2020 had PFOA levels 800 times higher than the new federal levels. The city has since made strides to clean the compounds from its water, but until further testing, there’s no way to confirm these improvements.
Secondly, after identifying contaminants, we must clean our water. Current methods, such as using granular activated charcoal, can remove some compounds, but new strategies are needed for others. Water cleaning is a complex, time-consuming process that requires substantial funding, but it’s a necessary investment for our health.
Third, we must identify the sources of contamination and eliminate them. This task is monumental and costly, but without it, contaminants will continue to enter our water supply.
Lastly, legislative measures are needed to reduce PFAS usage in everyday products. Not only do these products expose people to harmful chemicals, but the factories that manufacture them are also significant pollution sources.
The Implications: Comparing Regulations Across States
Colorado lacks its own specific PFAS regulations, unlike states like Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, which have enacted their own rules for some PFAS. These range from 8 parts per trillion to a combined limit of 20 parts per trillion for six compounds. While these states offer some hope, it’s clear that more action is needed.
The Consequences: Long-Term Costs
Addressing this issue won’t be cheap. From testing and water cleaning technologies to legislation and contamination source elimination, the costs will be high. “We have to accept that we have ignored this problem for years and we have forgotten that our priorities should be the next generation,” Grandjean stressed, emphasizing that the longer we delay, the more expensive the problem becomes.
However, the price we pay to fix this issue now will be far less than the health costs our future generations might face if we don’t take action. The impact of PFAS on health can be long-lasting and pervasive, affecting not just our generation but those to come.
Colorado’s PFAS water crisis is a pressing problem with far-reaching consequences. The need for immediate action, including advanced testing, improved water cleaning technologies, identification and elimination of contamination sources, and robust legislation to reduce PFAS usage, has never been greater. As we grapple with this issue, let’s remember that the ultimate goal is to safeguard our most precious resource, water, for ourselves and future generations. The time to act is now. Let’s not let our next generations pay the price for our inaction.