firefighting foam

Bridgette Swaney and her daughter, Addison, 4, use the last of their bottled water to make mint tea at their Widefield home on Oct. 6, 2016. High levels of perfluorinated compounds, believed to be from a firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base, were found in the water systems of Security, Widefield and Fountain, forcing residents to drink bottled water.

Residents living downstream of Peterson Air Force Base were among eight communities selected for a national study examining the levels of toxic chemicals in their blood from contaminants in millions of Americans’ drinking water.

Security, Widefield and Fountain residents were chosen to participate in the long-awaited, $10 million study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the agencies announced Thursday.

Liz Rosenbaum, who leads the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, said she was “very happy and ecstatic” that southern El Paso County was included.

“The hope is that they are willing to work with the community and to let them know the community is here to support them,” Rosenbaum said. “And we are looking forward to some answers.”

The study will examine exposure levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — otherwise known as PFAS — and it will “serve as a foundation for future studies evaluating the impact of PFAS exposure on human health,” the agencies’ news release said.

It aims to include about 400 people from southern El Paso County — all of whom will receive copies of their blood tests once completed. Study organizers also plan to host a community meeting to present the overall results.

The assessments are expected to start this year and continue into 2020, the agencies said. A process for enrolling participants is still being finalized.

The move marks the second such study in southern El Paso County, where the chemicals have contaminated the Widefield aquifer. The man-made chemicals, also called perfluorinated compounds, were used for decades in a firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base, as well as in a host of nonstick household cooking items.

In December, the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines released the findings of a study that showed participants had extremely high levels of the toxic chemicals in their bodies compared with other Americans.

The $275,000 study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that one type of chemical, known as PFOS, appeared about twice as high among the 220 study participants in Security, Widefield and Fountain as the general U.S. population.

Another chemical, known as PFOA, was found at levels 40 percent to 70 percent higher than other Americans.

Both chemicals were included in a lifetime health advisory issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016, which sparked the crisis and led water districts to spend millions of dollars treating water in the area. They are the only two types of PFAS chemicals the EPA is considering regulating — a process that could take several years to finalize.

The chemicals have been linked to several health ailments, including cancer, liver disease and high cholesterol.

Still, a third type of chemical not included in the health advisory, known as PFHxS, appeared about 10 times higher among the study’s participants than the general U.S. population, the study found.

That’s important, researchers said, because the chemical is often strongly associated with a toxic firefighting foam used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base and hundreds of other military installations around the world. It’s also harder to remove from drinking water and stays in the body longer than its larger molecular cousins.

A recent report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggested its health impacts include liver damage and a decreased ability to respond to vaccines.

At least a dozen varieties of PFAS compounds — including those three — will be included in the study, the agency said.

Still, concerns emerged shortly after Thursday’s announcement that the new study would not break new ground.

The latest study appearing to have a similar focus as the earlier study — chemical blood levels, not those chemicals’ health effects — is dispiriting, said Susan Gordon, who lived in Security for years as manager of the Venetucci Farm.

“There’s a pretty significant body of research out there that tells us pretty clearly that this stuff has some pretty damaging effects to our health,” Gordon said. “It’s a positive thing, but again, I think what we need is more action that would protect people going forward.”

“It’s going to just tell us more of what we already know.”

Still, Rosenbaum expressed hope the latest study would expand the area’s understanding of the contamination, by testing far more people, as well as groups left out of the earlier study, such as children.

Drinking water supplied by districts in Security, Widefield and Fountain no longer include six of the most well-known types of chemicals at detectable levels, district managers say.

The public concern that followed the health advisories led the water districts to shut off wells connected to the aquifer and build water treatment systems, or pipe in water from elsewhere, at a cost of millions of dollars.

The Air Force also pitched in millions of dollars to help provide clean water, though the military has said it cannot reimburse the districts for the full amount that they spent.

The newly announced federal study builds off two pilot assessments conducted in Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania, as well as Westhampton, N.Y., the agencies said. More communities might be selected to participate.

The project also includes a study around Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, which will examine the relationship between exposure to the chemicals and health effects experienced by residents there.

Other locations picked for the study include communities surrounding Eielson and Fairchild Air Force bases; Shepherd Field, Barnes, Stewart and New Castle Air National Guard bases; and Reese Technology Center in Texas.

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