The Colorado School of Public Health will receive at least $1 million to begin studying the health effects that toxic “forever chemicals” have had on 1,300 children and adults living in Security, Widefield and Fountain.
The research team was among six selected across the nation for the federally funded study — a first-of-its-kind effort to understand the diseases caused by exposure to perfluorinated compounds through drinking water.
While other studies have examined individual communities, this study will examine thousands of people across several states and contamination sites. It’s being spearheaded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
In all, the study will include 6,000 adults and 2,000 children as young as 4 who were exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water. Among those are 1,000 adults and 300 children in southern El Paso County, said John Adgate, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health.
That’s nearly six times the number of participants involved in a similar study led by Adgate last year, which found extremely high levels of the toxic chemicals in residents’ bloodstreams.
The latest study will be open to many more people than his previous work, which did not accept children, smokers and people who had certain pre-existing diseases, such as auto-immune conditions, Adgate said.
Most important, the previous study did little to shed light on what effect those chemicals had on residents’ health. Instead, it largely just examined how prevalent the chemicals were in residents’ bloodstreams.
“This study will have much more power — statistical power — to detect changes in people, and that’s what’s important in these sort of investigations,” Adgate said.
The study is expected to last several years, and researchers don’t plan to start recruiting participants until late summer or early fall 2020, Adgate said.
That’s because researchers still must lay the groundwork for the study, such as establishing protocols for collecting blood samples, he said.
The selection of Adgate’s team, as well as the high number of participants sought for it, came as welcome news to Liz Rosenbaum, who leads the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
“Now that more science has emerged, there’s a bigger interest in participating in something that will not only help our community, but others in the nation,” Rosenbaum said.
Perfluorinated chemicals are man-made and have been used for decades in myriad household and nonstick items, such as carpet cleaners, fast food wrappers and Teflon products. They’ve also been used for decades in a military firefighting foam, including at Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy.
The chemicals have been linked to a range of ailments from high cholesterol to cancer.
They also forced El Paso County water districts to invest millions of dollars in filtration systems. Water officials in Security, Widefield and Fountain now say the chemicals no longer appear in drinking water at detectable levels.
Thousands of types of perfluorinated compounds exist, and a growing number of them have raised red flags for the dangers they present. Government agencies also have referred to them with the more inclusive term of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The Environmental Protection Agency has only issued a lifetime health advisory for two types of the chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS. The EPA regulates none of them.
At least a dozen varieties will be included in the study, the CDC has previously said.
Once underway, the study is expected to rank among the largest ever conducted on the chemicals and their effects on the human body.
Previous studies have examined small communities or single contamination sources, leaving vast, unanswered questions on the dangers the chemicals pose.
Last year, for example, Adgate’s team found that hundreds of southern El Paso County residents had extremely high levels of the chemicals in their bloodstreams, compared with other Americans.
PFOS levels appeared about twice as high among the study’s participants than in the general U.S. population.
PFOA was found at levels 40% to 70% higher than other Americans.
A third type of chemical, which hasn’t been included in EPA health advisories, appeared about 10 times higher among the study’s participants than the general U.S. population, the study found. That type, called PFHxS, could cause liver damage and a decreased ability to respond to vaccines.
But that study, which cost $275,000 and was funded by the National Institutes of Health, only examined 220 people in Security, Widefield and Fountain.
Other studies have examined far fewer types of perfluorinated compounds.
A decade ago, for example, 69,000 people were tested and studied in the mid-Ohio Valley due to contamination from a manufacturing source.
That study, however, only examined a limited number of “forever chemicals.”
That’s a problem for people in places like southern El Paso County, where contamination stemmed from a firefighting foam laced with an untold number of the chemicals.
As a result, researchers have little idea how the chemicals act as a mixture once in the human body.
“Particularly the mixture that’s in Security, Widefield and Fountain is unique and less studied,” Adgate said.
Also participating in the study will be the Colorado School of Mines, Children’s Hospital Colorado, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the University of Southern California.