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Blood Tests Link High Levels of Toxic Chemicals to Air Force Base Contaminants

Jakob Rodgers |

Many residents living in El Paso County, Colorado have extremely high levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies compared with other Americans -- apparently from drinking water contaminated by firefighting foam used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base -- according to a first-of-its-kind study released Thursday.

The Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado School of Mines released the results of the first widespread blood tests of residents in southern El Paso County. In doing so, the researchers strengthened the link between the chemicals found in part of the county's aquifer and Peterson Air Force Base's use of the foam.

"The compounds measured are relatively consistent with the idea these are coming from firefighting foam use," said Christopher Higgins, a Colorado School of Mines researcher involved in the study.

The results largely confirmed researchers and residents' suspicions that people living in that area are loaded with toxic chemicals that weaken the immune system and are linked to cancer, liver disease and high cholesterol.

But it also shed light on the extent to which people are contaminated with a toxic chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to target for further action, despite another federal agency's concerns about its toxicity.

The study, which surveyed 220 people, gave tens of thousands of other residents in the area their first hint at what could be in their blood.

"If you've lived here for a long time and you've been drinking the city water, particularly in Security, where the levels are highest, there's a good chance your levels are elevated," said John Adgate, a Colorado School of Public Health researcher who led the study.

Thursday's announcement offered preliminary results from the study, which began this year with funding from the federal National Institutes of Health.

It did not offer insight into whether the chemicals appeared to be causing health ailments.

"We don't have an answer on that yet," Adgate said.

Still, the results could prove useful in seeking more money for further testing, said Liz Rosenbaum, who heads the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.

Her blood had levels of one chemical that was 14 times higher than the general public. Still, she said the results were a relief.

"Before we didn't know -- we were just a bunch of complaining citizens," Rosenbaum said. "But now we have scientific studies. I'd like to say we were right."

For chemicals most commonly associated with the foam, the contamination was worst among Security residents. In general, blood levels of the chemicals gradually dropped the farther south that people lived, the study found.

The most prevalent chemical found in the participants' bloodstreams has largely been ignored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Levels of perfluorohexane sulfonate, or PFHxS, were about 10 times higher among the study's participants than the general U.S. population, the study found.

That's important, researchers said, because the chemical is often strongly associated with toxic firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base and hundreds of other military installations around the world.

It's also far more troublesome.

The chemical is smaller than its better known molecular cousins and moves far more easily through water and through the environment.

It's also harder -- though not impossible -- to remove from drinking water, because of its small, nimble size. And for reasons unknown, despite its small size, it stays in the body longer than its larger molecular cousins.

The half-life of PFHxS -- the time it takes the body to rid itself of half the chemical -- is 8 1/2 years. That's longer than the two types of perfluorinated compounds listed in the EPA's current health advisory.

A recent report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggested it could cause liver damage and a decreased ability to respond to vaccines. There also exists a possibility that it could lead to early menopause, the agency said.

The EPA has only focused on two other types of perfluorinated compounds -- both of which also were in residents' bloodstreams. Results for perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, were about twice as high as the general U.S. population. Results for another chemical, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, were 40 percent to 70 percent higher than other Americans.

Both chemicals were included in a lifetime health advisory that began the water crisis in 2016. Still, no perfluorinated chemicals are regulated by the EPA.

The agency has said it plans to release a national response plan for the chemicals by year's end. Work on the plan is ongoing, and it will be released "as soon as possible," said Lisa McClain-Vanderpool, an EPA spokeswoman.

For Rick Giles, 68, the results were expected. A Fountain resident of more than 40 years, his blood test results came back at nearly eight times as much PFHxS as a typical American. He also had elevated levels of at least one other type of perfluorinated compound.

"You'd think at least the water system is safe," Giles said. "This substantiates what we already knew, to tell you the truth. I just hope in the long run it's not going to be a detrimental effect."

Mike Delmonico, 71, agreed. His tests showed PFHxS levels that were about 50 times higher than the general population.

"We've been drinking the water all along," Delmonico said. "I don't know what the long-term consequences are. This raises more questions."

Kristy Richardson, an environmental toxicologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the test results do nothing to change the agency's guidance on whether other residents should get their blood tested.

No studies exist that can tell doctors what to expect when a patient has a certain amount of perfluorinated compounds in their blood.

In other words, simply knowing how much perfluoraitned compounds are in someone's blood doesn't offer any help to doctors on what to do next, she said.

At a cost of several hundred dollars, it doesn't make economic sense for residents to pay for blood tests, she said. Adgate recommended that people limit their exposure to the chemicals. Already, water districts in Security, Widefield and Fountain have removed the chemicals from drinking water.

But Adgate recommended that people using private wells get their water tested, if they haven't already. And he said people should limit use of myriad household items containing the chemicals, such as many nonstick and water-resistant products.

He plans to retest the blood of 50 people in June, to see how quickly the chemicals have left their bodies.

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