Mines, ColoradoSPH to study contaminated water exposure

 

Toxic chemicals from fire-fighting foams have contaminated water supplies in the towns of Fountain, Security and Widefield south of Colorado Springs, affecting at least 65,000 Coloradans

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, assistant professor of epidemiology at ColoradoSPH, and Katerina Kechris, associate professor of biostatistics and informatics​ at ColoradoSPH.

CONTACT
Tonya Ewers, Director of Communications and Alumni Relations, Colorado School of Public Health | 303-724-8573 | tonya.ewers@ucdenver.edu
Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Colorado School of Mines | 303-273-3361 | erusch@mines.edu