You’ve heard about PFAS in the media — here’s how they’re affecting Grand County

The Fraser River flows past Kaibab Park in Granby, close to where a 2020 test detected a total PFAS level of 6.04 parts per trillion.
Kyle McCabe/Sky-Hi News

For years, Colorado media outlets like the Denver Post, Colorado Sun and Fox 31 have reported on the prevalence and dangers of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a category of thousands of chemicals used in consumer, commercial and industrial products.

Wide-ranging coverage has included sources of PFAS, regulations on them and their potential effects, but focus on PFAS levels in water increased after an update from the Environmental Protection Agency in June.

The EPA announced in a press release June 15 that it lowered its drinking water health advisory levels for PFAS. Previous EPA advisory levels from 2016 allowed for a combination of PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common PFAS, to total 70 parts per trillion. The new advisory sets the PFOA limit at 0.004 parts per trillion and the PFOS limit at 0.02 parts per trillion.

The press release said the health advisory “indicate(s) the level of drinking water contamination below which adverse health effects are not expected to occur,” to help officials develop monitoring plans, treatment solutions and policies. The levels aim to protect people over their entire lifetime and take into account other sources of exposure people incur. 

“EPA’s lifetime health advisories identify levels to protect all people, including sensitive populations and life stages, from adverse health effects resulting from a lifetime of exposure to these PFAS in drinking water,” the press release reads.

Several stories in Colorado media have focused on the EPA’s change and places in Colorado that now sit well above the advisory level, including Frisco, which has a few water sources with levels more than 1,000 times higher than the advisory.

The advisory levels sit below what current testing equipment can even detect — a fact that led researchers at Stockholm University to publish a paper showing rainwater around the world contains higher levels of PFAS than the American agency’s standard.

While the EPA’s website dedicates an entire page to explain what scientists are still learning about PFAS, the extreme drop in advisory levels shows the potential danger of these “forever chemicals.”

A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment map shows where PFOS and PFOA tests have been conducted. In Grand County, it shows results from Winter Park, Fraser, Tabernash, the Fraser River near Granby, Shadow Mountain Village, the East Grand County Fire Protection District #4, Hot Sulphur Springs and the Colorado River near Hot Sulphur Springs. 

The map does not show data from Grand Lake that is listed on a department of public health table of results from the state’s 2020 PFAS sampling project.

Total PFAS values from the test locations across the county range from none detected to 23.79 parts per trillion. Tabernash Meadows Water District, Shadow Mountain Village and Winter Park Water District all had no PFAS detected. The average level of total PFAS in Grand County from this data was 6.88 parts per trillion.

The Town of Fraser had 13 testing sites, one of which detected no PFAS while the others ranged from 1.48 parts per trillion to the county-high 23.79 parts per trillion. Fraser had the only PFAS results over 10 parts per trillion in the county.

Across the state, the Four Mile Fire Protection District in Florissant had the highest total PFAS at 2,460.57 parts per trillion, while the Security Water District in Colorado Springs, at 1,596.9 parts per trillion, had the highest total for a public water system and Sand Creek in Commerce City registered the highest value for surface water at 257.2.

Dave Johnson, the Grand Lake water superintendent, said the total PFAS level of 8.2 parts per trillion did not present a great concern for the town’s water supply. He said Grand Lake’s 2020 sample was not specific to PFAS, and he would expect future tests to show levels below EPA standards.

“Those PF(A)S, you can’t take (samples) out of plastic pipe or anything like that,” Johnson said. “Those samples were at our entry point, which does go through plastic pipe and that came out of our brand new storage tank.”

Johnson talked about a PFAS sampling guide created by the water quality administrator for Arvada. They list guidelines for reducing contamination, including what kinds of containers, clothing, paper, writing utensils, sunscreen and bug sprays are acceptable. They advise sample collectors to avoid wearing lotion, nail polish or makeup and provide specific steps for collecting samples.

The EPA’s new advisory levels caused confusion for Johnson because he said he does not know of any way to test for chemicals down to fractions of parts per trillion.

“Normally, sampling results like lead and copper are all parts per million,” Johnson said. “The new sampling, or the new testing, has gotten a lot more accurate. So they are listing some things in parts per trillion, but that’s as far as they go.”

Colorado does not have specific regulations for PFAS, but Johnson and Granby Water Superintendent Doug Bellatty expect state regulations to come eventually. Bellatty said the state regulations would likely come after the EPA sets enforceable limits, something the agency’s website says it will do by fall 2023

While other states have regulations for PFAS levels in drinking water, like Massachusetts’ 20 parts per trillion, Bellatty pointed out that they are still far above the EPA’s advisory levels.

“If the EPA hasn’t come up with a solid guideline and (Colorado) hasn’t come up with a solid guideline, that should be an indication to people that this thing is still working itself out at some level,” Bellatty said.

The Colorado department of health adopted a PFAS narrative policy in 2020 that provides guidance for how the state could create and enforce regulations, but the department’s website acknowledges that, “It can take a long time to develop a numerical standard for surface and groundwater.”

Bellatty emphasized that finding and implementing solutions to the problem of PFAS will take time and money. He said individuals worried about exposure through drinking water should use water filters to protect themselves. The Colorado department of health suggests using reverse osmosis or granulated activated carbon filters.

Bellatty said he appreciates that some people may think water districts do not move fast enough to address PFAS, but he said Granby’s water workers need to be sure a treatment plan — buying and installing new equipment and budgeting money for its maintenance — will work before they can advocate for implementing it.

“Granby doesn’t have the luxury of making treatment mistakes,” Bellatty said. “We have one chance to get water treatment right the first time, every time.”

Testing will play a large role in finding the right treatment plan for Granby, Bellatty said. He expects the town’s 2023 budget to designate more money than previous years for testing and said he thinks federal and state grants will help places like Granby pay for testing, treatment and cleanup.

Fraser Town Manager Ed Cannon wrote in a statement that the town has two water systems, the North and South Systems. The North System had a total PFAS level of 5.76 parts per trillion and the South had 7.06 parts per trillion in 2020 tests. Cannon wrote that Fraser will follow all recommendations by the EPA and Colorado public health department.

“However, we are waiting on formal guidance from the EPA,” Cannon wrote. “We are currently conducting additional testing and examining steps to reduce exposure.”

Town staff will update the Fraser website with PFAS information to inform the community, Cannon wrote.

Representatives from Kremmling, Tabernash, Winter Park and Hot Sulphur Springs declined to comment for this story.

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