Widefield aquifer: ColoradoSPH and @coschoolofmines score grant to study health effects of aqueous film-forming foams

Photo via USAF Air Combat Command

Here’s the release from the Colorado School of Public Health:

​Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado School of Mines received a two-year grant to investigate contamination of the drinking water in the towns of Fountain, Security, and Widefield, Colorado. Residents of these towns were exposed to drinking water contaminated with pollutants originating from aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) used in firefighting and training activities.

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 AFFF-derived poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). PFASs are a class of chemicals widely used in industrial and commercial applications since the 1950s.

In July, a nine-month U.S. Air Force study verified that firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base contaminated ground water and soil with PFASs at levels more than 1,000 times an Environmental Protection Agency health advisory limit for similar chemicals.

The grant is from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a program of the National Institutes of Health. This study is being funded because of the recent discovery of the source of contamination, which has impacted the water supplies of these communities for several years.

“This research will contribute to our understanding of the factors driving this unique exposure and how it may affect long-term health,” said Dr. John Adgate, chair of ColoradoSPH’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and principal investigator of the study. “We will collect the first systematic data on blood levels of these persistent compounds in this PFAS-impacted community. While exposure to PFASs has been significantly reduced due to work by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the local water utilities, our hope is that by gathering data on blood levels shortly after people’s peak exposure we can provide better answers on related health effects and potential next steps.”

Currently, little is known about the health effects of human exposure to PFASs in areas with drinking water contaminated by AFFF, and no systematic biomonitoring has been done in these communities.

“Because we suspect that any health effects are likely related to peak blood levels, it is important to collect the blood data and health effect information as soon as we can,” Dr. Adgate said.

Dr. Christopher Higgins, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mines and a co-investigator for the study, will be applying advanced analytical techniques to examine the potential that a much broader suite of PFASs is present in the impacted water supplies and possibly in people’s blood.

“By using high resolution mass spectrometry to look at both water samples and a subset of human serum samples, we hope to improve our understanding of exactly which compounds bioaccumulate in humans and how long they stick around in the human body,” Higgins said. “We will also explore the links between drinking water exposure, PFAS blood levels, and the potentially related health effects.”

Interventions to the water system like carbon filtration and alternative water supplies recommended by state and county health departments began in early 2016 soon after discovery of the contamination. As a result, exposures to these chemicals have been significantly curtailed. One of the research team’s challenges will be to work with the water utilities and health agencies to attempt to sample water from wells representative of what people were drinking before these interventions started. The study team hopes the additional water data will be useful to CDPHE and the water utilities that have been impacted by this contamination.

The study will also include Anne Starling, PhD​​, assistant professor of epidemiology at ColoradoSPH and Katerina Kechris, PhD​, associate professor of biostatistics and informatics​ at ColoradoSPH.

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliot) via The Denver Post:

The University of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines said the two-year study aims to determine how much of the chemicals residents absorbed, how quickly their bodies are shedding the contaminants and what the current levels are in the water.

The chemicals are called perfluorinated compounds or PFCs. They have been linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer, along with other illnesses.

Firefighting foam containing PFCs has been used at military installations nationwide. PFCs have also been used in non-stick cookware coatings and other applications.

The Air Force announced in 2016 it would switch to some another type of foam believed to be safer.

PFCs were found in well water in three utility systems serving about 69,000 people in the city of Fountain and an unincorporated community called Security-Widefield south of Colorado Springs. Levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limits.

The utilities have switched to other water sources.

The Air Force determined the chemicals came from firefighting foam used at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.

The new study is designed to look at large-scale impacts of the chemicals, but individual subjects will at least learn what their contamination levels are and can talk to their health care providers about it, said John Adgate, the principal investigator…

Although the study is planned for just two years, with sufficient funding it could be turned into longer-term project, he said.

“There are no strong studies on the long-term health effects of these compounds,” Adgate said.

The Colorado study is funded by an initial grant of about $247,000 from the National Institutes of Health.

Petersen Air Force Basin Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo credit: MilitaryBases.com.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Tom Roeder):

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…

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…

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.

From KOAA.com:

“What’s unknown here is what are the long term health consequences of exposure to these compounds and this study will begin to look at that,” Dr. John Adgate, principal investigator of the study at the Colorado School of Public Health said.

After drinking water was tainted in the Security, Widefield and Fountain areas a year and a half ago which reports link to Peterson Air Force Base firefighting foam, many wondered if this could make them sick.

“The things that we’re going to look at are some live enzyme tests and also some markers of immune function,” Dr. Adgate said…

On Thursday, his research team announced they got the green light on funding for the two-year study.

“I’m happy, I’m excited that we get to do the work, I know people are concerned,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to do something that’s important for public health in the state of Colorado and these folks in particular in Fountain, Security and Widefield.”

He’s hoping to find out how persistent these compounds are in a group of 200 volunteers, all people from across the three affected areas.

“Measure both their blood levels and collect some household water and look at the relationship between that and where they live, how long they’ve lived there and some markers of health effects,” he said.

And regardless of the outcome of the study, he says the first order of business is making sure people are no longer being exposed.

“Trying to offer them what we can in terms of interventions that assure that and answer other questions for example, can we grow vegetables with this?” he said.

Researchers will start looking for that pool of 200 volunteers in the first half of 2018, focusing on long-term residents.

They’re expecting to hold more public meetings to hear from the community before they move forward with signing up volunteers.</blockquote

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

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