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Health study tied to toxic Widefield Aquifer water moves ahead

December 22, 2017 Updated: December 22, 2017 at 4:41 pm
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A crew from Velocity Constructors, Inc., in Denver work on a new ion-exchange filter system Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at the Southmoor Water Treatment Plant for the Widefield Water and Sanitation District. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The first health study examining Pikes Peak region residents who drank water tainted with chemicals from firefighting foam at Peterson Air Force Base is moving ahead after federal money for the work was approved.

Approval for the study of residents in Fountain, Security and Widefield was announced Thursday by the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the Colorado School of Mines. It will examine how perfluorinated compounds, a class of chemicals contained in the foam, have impacted the health of a small group of residents.

"By measuring biological markers of exposure and health indicators in a sample of approximately 200 people who consumed contaminated water, this study will provide communities and scientists with an improved understanding of the biopersistence and potential health impacts of (perfluorinated compounds)," CU-Anschutz said on its website.

The chemical has been tied to health problems ranging from high cholesterol to cancer.

Contamination in the Widefield aquifer triggered alarm in 2016 after the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory citing high levels of perfluorinated compounds - some samples showed 1,000 times the safe level of the chemical.

Another study tied the contamination to Peterson Air Force Base, which used the firefighting foam for decades, with runoff winding up in local wells.

Water providers have added filters and have switched to untainted sources since the contamination was revealed, but perfluorinated compounds are known to stay in the human body for decades after they're consumed.

"Currently, little is known about the health effects of human exposure to (the chemicals) in areas with drinking water contaminated by (firefighting foam), and no systematic biomonitoring has been done in these communities," CU-Anschutz said.

Details on the study, including how its subjects will be picked, have not been released.

The $275,000 local study comes after Congress approved a wider national effort as part of a military policy bill this month. The national study will help federal officials understand contamination reported near military bases around the nation that used the firefighting foam. Used to fight fuel fires, the chemical-laden foam was finally removed from Peterson Air Force base last year.

The Air Force had been studying its toxic qualities since the Carter administration.

Studies by the Air Force as far back as 1979 demonstrated the chemicals were harmful to laboratory animals, causing liver damage, cellular damage and low birth weight of offspring.

The Army Corps of Engineers, considered the military's leading environmental agency, told Fort Carson to stop using the foam in 1991 and in 1997 told soldiers to treat it as a hazardous material, calling it "harmful to the environment."

In 2000, the EPA called for a phaseout of the chemicals and later declared they were "likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

The Air Force plans more groundwater studies at Peterson Air Force Base next year as the Colorado Department of Health and Environment considers setting a groundwater limit for the chemical in the Widefield aquifer. The limit would be 70 parts per trillion - that's a shot glass of the chemical in 107 million gallons of water.

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