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Chemicals in Widefield aquifer more toxic than EPA advisory, draft report says

Author: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - June 21, 2018 - Updated: June 21, 2018

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Residents fill up jugs with drinkable water at a water station on Powers and Fontaine blvds in 2016. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The two most notorious chemicals in the Widefield aquifer are seven to 10 times more toxic than previously suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency, a different federal agency reported Wednesday.

The chemicals’ heightened toxicity highlighted an 852-page draft report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which it posted for public comment amid concerns by Capitol Hill lawmakers that the report would be suppressed by the White House.

The new scientific review raised fresh questions about whether the EPA’s warnings about the chemicals are too lenient. And the findings suggest that far more Americans are being exposed to harmful chemicals in their drinking water than are currently considered at risk by the EPA, experts contacted by The Gazette said.

In addition to increased concerns about the chemicals’ toxicity, the report said two other chemicals that have yet to trigger EPA warnings pose a health risk.

“It definitely says that the current health advisory is too high to adequately protect human health,” said Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.

Already some other states have instituted tighter water standards and health advisories than has the EPA.

The new report suggests that those states were right to do so, said Laurel Schaider, a research scientist focusing on the chemicals at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass.

“It supports the conclusions of some other scientists and regulators that EPA’s drinking water advisory may not be adequately protective for all populations,” Schaider said.

The report’s release appeared in doubt earlier this year after a White House official complained of a “potential public relations nightmare” in an email exchange with top EPA administrators.

The emails, which were released earlier this year to the Union of Concerned Scientists under a Freedom of Information Act request, framed the findings as being “extremely painful” for the EPA and the Defense Department.

The report relies on some information the EPA didn’t have two years ago, when it set its current lifetime health advisory.

The 2016 advisory says people may be harmed over the course of their lives when the combined levels of two types of perfluorinated compounds – perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA – exceed 70 parts per trillion in their drinking water. That’s a shot glass of the chemical in 107 million gallons of water.

Health risks associated with the chemicals include cancer, liver damage, low birth weight and other conditions.

A statement by the EPA said addressing the chemicals’ presence in waterways is one of the agency’s “top priorities,” and that the EPA “is committed to continuing to participate in and contribute to a coordinated approach across the federal government,” the EPA’s statement said.

The report’s release came as Fountain and Peterson Air Force Base leaders toasted glasses of newly filtered water from the contaminated Widefield aquifer in a ceremony aimed at demonstrating to residents that their water is safe to drink.

“I still see comments from people that they don’t trust it, they’re going to buy bottled water,” said Mayor Gabriel Ortega. “This is going to be 10 times safer than bottled water, because you don’t know where bottled water comes from.”

The city’s first new Air Force-supplied filter began cleansing drinking water on Monday – marking the first time in more than two and a half years that Fountain used water from the Widefield aquifer. Its second filter is expected to begin running in July.

Water tests have came back as “non-detect” for six types of perfluorinated compounds, said Curtis Mitchell, the city’s utilities director. That meant the chemicals did not exceed 2.5 parts per trillion.

“That’s one way I feel comfortable telling our community the water is safe, because we can demonstrate it by weekly sampling,” Mitchell said.

But even as they celebrated the installation of those filters, the new report raised fresh concerns.

Last year, a Colorado School of Mines researcher found those filters weren’t as efficient at removing more than two dozen chemicals derived from the firefighting foam. That includes at least one of the chemicals cited in Wednesday’s report as being more toxic than previously known, perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, or PFHxS.

As a result, cities relying on them must replace the filters more frequently if they choose to account for that growing list of perfluorinated chemicals, said Christopher Higgins, the study’s author.

Drawing a straight comparison between the EPA’s current health advisory and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s new report is difficult.

Wednesday’s report measured the chemicals differently – in this case, as the smallest amount that someone can ingest each day without being harmed over the course of their lives.

It’s measurement called a reference dose.

And the EPA used multiple reference doses for these toxic chemicals in calculating its 70 ppt health advisory.

The toxic substance agency’s reference dose for PFOS was 10 times lower than the EPA’s reference dose. And the reference dose for PFOA was seven times lower than suggested by the EPA.

The same held true for a different chemical, called perfluorononanoic acid, or PFNA.

And PFHxS had the same reference dose as what the EPA considers harmful for the two chemicals included in its health advisory.

The new report reviewed 10 other types of perfluorinated compounds, and found that “databases were not considered adequate” to determine a minimum risk level.

That includes perfluoroheptanoic acid, or PFHpA, which the Colorado Department of Health and Environment requires water providers to include in its final perfluorinated compounds readings.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said water officials are still reviewing the draft report.

The Gazette’s Haley Candelario contributed to this report.

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette