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Sep 15, 2016
Originally published on September 15, 2016 3:53 pm
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Health workers are piecing together a complicated puzzle in El Paso County, Colo. In January, three cities noticed synthetic chemicals in the drinking water known as PFCs. Historically these compounds have been used to make products such as carpets and specific firefighting foam. The Environmental Protection Agency has linked exposure to low birth weights and even forms of cancer. Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio reports.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: In the city of Security south of Colorado Springs, resident Brenda Piontkowski works through her to-do list. There are meals to plan, events with the family and the regular run to a filtered water station.

BRENDA PIONTKOWSKI: The sound of clean water.

HOOD: Piontkowski has visited this water vending station every other day for months because she says water at home isn't safe.

PIONTKOWSKI: All I know is it's not healthy. I can't drink my tap water.

HOOD: That's because her tap water has PFCs - perfluorinated compounds. Most people have been exposed to very small amounts in fabric or cookware, but a few places across the country have elevated levels in drinking water.

The city of Security is one of those spots. The EPA links higher exposure levels to a number of health concerns. This May, the agency made health advisory levels for PFCs more strict.

JOEL BEAUVAIS: These numbers incorporate a margin of protection and would be protective over the course of a lifetime of exposure in drinking water to these levels.

HOOD: Joel Beauvais is with the EPA.

BEAUVAIS: And they would also be protective against the developmental effects that might be associated with short-term exposures during pregnancy or infancy.

HOOD: The EPA has worked since the early 2000s to phase out production of PFCs. Water contamination has been linked to locations where the chemical itself is produced as well as airfields where a specific PFC-laden firefighting foam was used.

In Colorado, health officials say nearby Peterson Air Force Base is one likely source, and they point out further investigation is needed. Daniel Medina has helped coordinate PFC research across the Air Force.

DANIEL MEDINA: It's important for us to study the problem and see where they're located so we spend the future dollars on the right places.

HOOD: Since 2010, the Air Force has spent $137 million to study the scope of the problem. It says nearly 200 installations warrant more in-depth inspections for PFCs. Meantime, the U.S. Department of Defense says it's examining hundreds of other sites for possible contamination.

In the city of Security, Colo., Water and Sanitation District Manager Roy Heald has a different goal. It's drinking water that's 100 percent PFC free.

ROY HEALD: And that's not as easy as you might think. It's not a matter of just flipping a switch and shutting off a well.

HOOD: The city of Security uses a combination of groundwater from wells and surface water from rivers. It's the groundwater that exceeds the EPA advisory. Crews are working hard to make it easier to blend in surface water and improve the infrastructure, but Heald says those projects could cost each person who receives a water bill.

HEALD: This has not affected our rate yet, but unless there is relief from somebody else, it has to.

HOOD: That relief could come from the Air Force itself. Earlier this summer it announced it will spend more than $4 million to help install filtration systems for water districts. And there are plans to phase out the firefighting foam on military bases.

But in Colorado it could take years until studies conclusively decide who's responsible, and that leaves Heald and the city of Security's ratepayers on the hook for now. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Security, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.