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Attorneys in Widefield water lawsuit want state to pay for blood tests

October 6, 2016 Updated: October 6, 2016 at 2:24 pm
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COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - JUNE 8: A water tower overlooks the community of Security in the foreground of Pike's Peak on June 8, 2016. A invisible toxic chemical has been discovered in the drinking water that affects 70,000 people in the communities south of Colorado Springs. (Photo by Michael Reaves/The Denver Post)

Several residents in the Security, Widefield and Fountain communities last month sued the manufacturers of a toxic chemical fouling their drinking water - each seeking expensive blood tests for themselves and their neighbors.

Now, the attorneys for those residents want the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to create and fund its own blood testing program, and quick.

"We think it's a public health problem," said Mike McDivitt, an attorney.

The call for a state-run blood testing program comes as the litigants gear up for a lengthy court battle against the companies that made and sold firefighting foam suspected of contaminating the drinking water of thousands of people across southern El Paso County.

Two federal lawsuits seeking class action status were filed in September over the tainted Widefield aquifer. Each lawsuit claimed manufacturers knew chemicals in the firefighting foam were toxic, but nevertheless neglected warning anyone while the foam was used at Peterson Air Force Base.

The chemicals, called perfluorinated compounds, have been associated with a host of health ailments, including kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.

The lawsuits seek damages to pay for residents' medical costs. But they also demand manufacturers fund blood tests for the Security, Widefield and Fountain communities. Those tests can cost up to $700, McDivitt said.

On Wednesday, McDivitt and several partnering attorneys called for the state and local health departments, Gov. John Hickenlooper's office and Colorado lawmakers to spearhead expedited testing.

"Every one of these folks has to be blood tested," McDivitt said.

Mark Salley, a state health department spokesman, said in a statement that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. He pointed to the agency's website, however, which recommends against blood tests "since results of blood tests don't show whether you might have health problems from exposure to PFCs."

Rather, the tests show whether a person's blood contains lower or higher levels of perfluorinated compounds than the general population, the agency's website said.

States don't always foot the bill for testing.

A landmark lawsuit more than 10 years ago ended in a settlement that required DuPont to pay for the blood tests of nearly 70,000 people in the mid-Ohio Valley.

However, a few state health departments have started paying for blood tests in recent years, in communities far smaller than the tens of thousands of people affected south of Colorado Springs.

New Hampshire, for example, has tested at least 1,400 people so far in communities whose drinking water was contaminated by perfluorinated compounds, said Jake Leon, a New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services spokesman. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided another 500 tests to people in that state.

Leon acknowledged the tests cannot indicate whether the chemicals caused specific health effects, or whether they will cause someone to get sick in the future. However, he said the tests still let people know if they have above-average levels in their bodies.

"Folks are concerned," Leon said. "And we can't necessarily give them all of the information that they want right now, because of where the science is around these chemicals. But we can provide them this."

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