With the Environmental Protection Agency drafting a new rule that regulates the amount of PFAS, or ‘forever-chemicals,’ in public water systems, Thornton, Northglenn and Westminster are looking at their options.
The rule, according to a news release from the EPA on March 14, would be the first-ever national drinking water standard for six different kinds of PFAS, poly-fluoroalkyl substances. The maximum level for two of those types, PFOS or PFOA, would be 4 parts per trillion.
Martin Kimmes, Thornton’s water treatment and quality manager, said last year that amount is approximately equal to one drop of detergent in enough dishwater to fill a 10-mile-long train of railroad cars.
For the other four, the regulation would be “...to limit any mixture containing one or more of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and/or GenX Chemicals. For these PFAS, water systems would use an established approach called a hazard index calculation, defined in the proposed rule, to determine if the combined levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk.”
The move comes after the EPA set a health advisory at those same levels in June of 2022. Current best evidence shows that PFAS, so-called forever chemicals, can increase levels of cholesterol in some and can lead to risky pregnancy, kidney and testicular cancer, among other complications. They are used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products.
When the EPA rules were released in 2022, Thornton was over the limit. In May 2022, the Thornton Water Treatment Plant measured 7.1 parts per trillion for PFOA and 3.5 parts per trillion for PFOS. The Wes Brown Water Treatment Plant saw 5.4 parts per trillion for PFOA and 2.0 parts per trillion for PFOS.
“Thornton staff are currently reviewing the draft rule to determine if current treatment strategies are sufficient to meet the requirements and, if not, what changes and associated funding would be required to meet the new requirements,” a news release from Thornton Spokesperson Todd Barnes reads.
If the rule is finalized, it will require public water systems to monitor for these chemicals. If they exceed the regulation, the city will have to notify the public and reduce the PFAS contamination.
“EPA anticipates that if fully implemented, the rule will, over time, prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses. This action establishes nationwide protection from PFAS pollution for all people, including environmental justice communities,” reads the EPA news release.
Westminster and Northglenn
Westminster continues to test below detectable limits, according to City Spokesperson Andy Le. With the new water treatment plant approved earlier this year, they have time to adjust their planning due to any action from the EPA and are awaiting guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for implementation.
“Coupled with the potential for federal subsidies to offset the significant costs to treat PFAS, the City’s recent acquisition of the approved water treatment site gives us the flexibility to respond to future regulatory requirements,” Le said.
Northglenn Environmental Manager Tami Moon said that the city has tested its drinking water for PFAS and found no detectable amount. However, they are concerned, mostly about price.
“The technology to treat PFAS is very expensive and not widely used. Right now, we will likely be required to sample for PFAS compounds, but what that looks like has not been determined yet either. This will also have an impact on our laboratory budgets, and perhaps our Industrial Pretreatment program, because the cost for the PFAS analysis is also very expensive,” she wrote in an email.
Money for plants
According to a news release from the EPA, almost $86 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will go towards addressing PFAS in Colorado.
“This investment, which is allocated to states and territories, will be made available to communities as grants through EPA’s Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities (EC-SDC) Grant Program and will promote access to safe and clean water in small, rural, and disadvantaged communities while supporting local economies,” the news release reads.
How that money will be divided up among the state’s various communities is still up in the air.
According to Erin Garcia, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, they will be working with EPA guidance to determine the process the state will use to distribute the funding. That determination will come out in the coming months.
Other funds have come from the legislature.
“Colorado’s PFAS cash fund, created through Senate Bill 20-218, supports our PFAS Grant Program and a Takeback Program for firefighting foam containing PFAS. The department launched the grant program in late 2021 to help impacted water systems install water treatment to remove PFAS from the water, provide emergency assistance for communities affected by these chemicals, and pay sampling costs for water systems and private well owners,” Garcia wrote in an email.
While there is debate about how severe the health effects for the chemicals are, there is evidence of decreased antibody response, abnormal blood cholesterol levels, decreased infant and fetal growth and increased risk of kidney cancer in adults.
John Adgate, professor in the Colorado School of Public Health Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, said in the past that the chemicals are concerning.
“I’d never use the word safe to describe this,” he said. “Everything comes with a risk. The goal should be to get the levels as low as possible.”
Dr. Ned Calonge, Associate Dean for Public Health Practice at the Colorado School of Public Health, has said PFAS are difficult to study and it’s hard to nail down a molecular connection on how PFAS might cause human disease. However, there is extensive evidence on the association between PFAS levels and human disease.
“If people are trying to say ‘these PFAS don't have any human health effects,’ it’s likely because we haven't studied them,” he said in the past.