Thornton detects toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water supply, but say don’t panic

Concentrations of forever chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects — known as PFAS — detected in Thornton’s water supply exceed new federal health advisory levels by more than 1,000 times, city officials said.

The existence of the chemicals is a concern but not a crisis, Thornton officials said in a release.

In June the Environmental Protection Agency reduced acceptable levels of one type of PFAS from 70 parts per trillion down to .004 parts per trillion.

“Essentially, the EPA wants the limit to be as close as possible to zero as a growing body of research has shown how toxic these compounds are,” Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard, wrote online for the university’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Concentrations of the chemicals over the EPA’s new acceptable level mean that people drinking the water must be notified, Thornton spokesman Todd Barnes said. And the new levels set by the EPA mean that test results taken in May from the Wes Brown Water Treatment Plant and Thornton Water Treatment Plant are too high.

Those health action levels are meant as a preliminary warning while the EPA develops its own, more formal regulations for the compounds, Barnes said.

Under the new guidelines, water from those plants has been too high since at least 2020, Martin Kimmes, the city’s water treatment and quality manager, said. The city serves water to about 160,000 people.

Perfluorooctanoic acid compounds, or PFOA, tested at 5.4 parts per trillion at the Wes Brown plant and 7.1 parts per trillion at the Thornton water plant. Those are 1,350 and 1,775 times higher than the federal health advisory limit, respectively. Another compound, called PFOS, tested at 100 and 175 times higher than the acceptable limits at the Wes Brown and Thornton plants, respectively.

Kimmes said the sources of the chemicals aren’t immediately clear but city officials have stopped using some wells from which they draw water and started treating other water sources with new chemicals to draw out the PFAS.

Currently, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment isn’t recommending that Thornton customers stop drinking their water, Kimmes said. However certain populations more at risk of exposure — those who are pregnant or breastfeeding or children under five — could use filters to reduce their risk further.

PFAS compounds are used to make a wide variety of products like carpets or rugs, cookware, cosmetics, fabrics, food packaging and more. Legislators in Colorado passed a law this year to phase out the sale of some of those products by prohibiting their sale.

Still, concerns lurk throughout the state and across the rest of the country. Attorney General Phil Weiser filed a lawsuit in February against companies that produce the chemicals. The compounds are likely seeping into hundreds of water sources in Colorado. The Widefield Aquifer, in particular, has been severely contaminated.

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