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New 'forever chemicals' guidelines force Front Range communities to examine their drinking water

Kids and teens should get two to three quarts of water per day, via food or drink, research suggests.
The Environmental Protection Agency put out a new advisory on the safe levels of PFAS, sometimes referred to as 'forever chemicals.' As a result, many Front Range communities are retesting their water and developing new treatment plans.

Communities across the Front Range are retesting their water, anticipating levels of "forever chemicals" well above new federal guidelines.

A group of chemicals known as per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, and commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” has been linked to various health risks, including liver and kidney damage, reduced birth weight, and cancer.

The EPA just updated its health advisory for safe levels of PFAS in drinking water from 70 parts per trillion, down to .02 parts per trillion for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and .004 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), specific compounds within the PFAS family.

That put the city of Thornton, formerly in compliance, more than 1,000 times over the new federal guidelines.

David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said this problem is not unique to Thornton.

“This is really a widespread problem that extends across the entire country,” Andrews said.

That’s because PFAS are kind of everywhere. PFAS rose to manufacturing stardom back in the 1940s for their ability to resist water and grease. Ever since, they’ve been used in everything from non-stick cookware and fire retardants to furniture and even pizza boxes.

Thornton has stopped drawing water from its most toxic wells and is using powder-activated carbon to absorb the PFAS. It’s still looking into the source of the contamination.

Meanwhile, the water utility that serves Commerce City is paying Denver Water $2.75 million to help clean up its PFAS contamination. The South Adams County Water and Sanitation District is using Denver Water supplies to dilute its contamination.

Water utility district manager Abel Moreno says the PFAS cleanup is costly, and some of it may be passed on to customers.

“It is possible that we may need to increase rates, certainly for the short term to balance the needs of buying more Denver Water,” Moreno said.

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment maintains that the contaminated water is still safe to drink. That’s because, technically, there is no legal limit for PFAS in drinking water.

The EPA’s new guidelines are just that — they’re guidelines and not official standards. The EPA is in the process of developing drinking water standards. Still there are barriers, including the fact that the current testing methods cannot detect PFAS at the low levels established by the EPA.

Andrews, from the Environmental Working Group, said those new standards will take into account “technical feasibility, cost, and other things that are not purely health-based.” The EPA is expected to release those standards by the end of this year.

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment suggests that at-risk populations, such as kids under the age of 5 and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, consider using a filter.

I’m a reporting fellow visiting from National Public Radio. I work on newscast, covering breaking news and important stories affecting communities in the Front Range.