Students research PFCS alongside ongoing EPA lawsuit against city

February 13, 2018

Tamera Twitty

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    The Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit against Colorado Springs in November 2016 for the improper management of stormwater runoff and water quality violations.

   In 2015, it was discovered that Peterson Air Force Base dumped toxic chemicals, including perfluorinated compounds, into Fountain Creek since 1991. The EPA accuses the city of unregulated stormwater canals that have resulted in contaminated drinking water.

    With no end in site for the lawsuit, UCCS students have been evaluating the effects of PFCs, a man-made chemical that does not decompose.

     Janel Owens, associate professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, has been conducting research with both graduate and undergraduate students on  about the longevity and concentration of PFCs in water, soil and produce.

Janel Owens, chemistry professor, discusses PFCs. Photo by Oliver Adon: The Scribe

    “Because they (PFCs) have a carbon-fluorine bond, they last a really long time. It’s a short bond, but it lingers,” said Owens.

   Tests conducted in October 2015 and again in May 2016 revealed elevated levels of PFCs in all 32 wells maintained by the Security Water and Sanitation District.

   In drinking water, PFC’s have also been linked to fetal development issues, acceleration in puberty, liver and tissue damage and result in cholesterol changes. When water canals are unregulated, erosion and surface run-off from poorly maintained water deposits, like Fountain Creek and its tributaries, contaminate the water.

    Owens is trying to further understand the concentration of these chemicals in water and food supplies through a method called chromatography.

    “EPA regulations say that PFCs can be 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. This is like 10 cents of a billion dollars,” she said.

Photo by Oliver Adon: The Scribe

     Chromatography helps scientists understand the concentration of the chemicals, as compared to EPA standards, in a controlled sample. Most recently, the test has been conducted on squash harvests.

    “We are measuring how much of a decrease we see after the release,” Owens said.

    So far, testing has resulted in a significantly higher level of PFCs present compared to EPA standards.

    If the lawsuit is won by the EPA, the result could be compensation in the millions. The exact amount for which the city will be responsible for remains unknown. The dumping of PFCs has been tied to cases of illness in the affected areas.

   However, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment website, “It is important to understand that there is a large amount of uncertainty on exposure levels and health effects for PFCs.”

   “It’s interesting how they do assessments of potential toxicity in the U.S. Chemicals are considered innocent until proven guilty. Also, they often do studies on animal models—this is problematic because of the differences in how the chemicals metabolize from animal to animal,” said Owens.

    Owens also saw a problem with the subjects of the studies the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment conducts.

    “Also, they often do studies on animal models—this is problematic because of the differences in how the chemicals metabolize from animal to animal,” Owens said.

    With Fountain and Security residents now receiving water from pueblo reservoir, the question of whether not the problems at Fountain Creek will be resolved still remains.

    “I’m sure there is research being conducted about how to separate the PFC’s on a molecular level. But first, can we even do it? And second, how practical is it?” said Owens.