Water contamination in southern El Paso County – likely caused by the upstream Peterson Air Force Base – has triggered fear and outrage in the community, and made national headlines in the process.
As reported this morning in The New York Times, the contaminants have leached into the drinking water of an estimated 80,000 people in the communities of Fountain, Widefield and Security. The perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, are an especially alarming public health challenge. Boiling water doesn’t eliminate them, and only certain filters can remove them.
PFCs can cause kidney cancer — a condition that residents in these municipalities suffer from in higher rates than the rest of El Paso County. They can also cause heart disease and lower birth weights, making them especially risky for pregnant women.
Alarms reportedly started sounding in May, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was lowering its standard for safe levels of PFCs in water supply. Some parts of Security had PFC levels over 3 times the new federal advisory level.
Families in the affected communities are worried about their safety. Some 800 people attended a community meeting on July 7th at Mesa Ridge High School to voice their concerns. Regional utilities directors have shut off contaminated wells and are pumping in water from other parts of the state – a strategy they say is expensive and unsustainable in the long-term. Charity groups have also been distributing bottled water, and an online petition for free bottled water garnered 2,000 signatures.
The Air Force has spent $137 million assessing the problem and plans to spend much more to clean up the water supply. It has also spent $108,000 on bottled water for affected residents.
That water only meets demand for human consumption, though. Businesses that rely on clean irrigation are out of luck. Venetucci Farm had to suspend operations beginning July 22 until its water, soil and crops can be tested – a significant blow to its loyal customer base. Many community members have for years and even decades relied on Venetucci for produce.
PFCs in water supply have caused health problems before, but they are usually a consequence of chemical or plastic manufacturing. In this case, the PFCs leached into the water as a result of a substance called Aqueous Film Forming Foam, which the Air Force base uses to fight fires. It was originally conceived by the Navy as an agent to fight petroleum fires on ships.
Perhaps most astonishing is that some residents have been living under the assumption that their tap water is unsafe since long before the PFC levels became national news.