A new Colorado study found toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” in 100% of the fish it sampled from previously known contaminated waterbodies in El Paso, Jefferson and Adams counties, adding to a growing series of reports on damage from the waterproofing materials’ spread in the environment.
Staff from the Colorado health department, the Colorado School of Mines, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife collected 49 fish across 10 species in the summer and fall of 2020, according to a new summary of the study. They sampled fish from Willow Springs Pond in Fountain, in El Paso County; Mann-Nyholt Lake in Henderson, in Adams County; and Tabor Lake in Wheatridge, in Jefferson County.
The sites were chosen in part because they are popular fishing spots where anglers often eat their catch.
All of the fish contained a form of PFAS, used to make nonstick utensils, firefighting foam and countless consumer products, though state officials say there is as yet no federal or local standard warning at what level of PFAS that fish should not be eaten.
“Because of the limitations of this project, it is not possible to draw conclusions about whether the levels of PFOS found in fish at these waterbodies are high enough to harm human health,” the state study says.
The highest concentrations of the forever chemicals were in fish from Willow Springs Pond, fed by Fountain Creek, up to 241 nanograms per gram. The draft study says that “In states that have fish consumption guidelines . . . the ‘Do not consume’ level ranges from 50 ng/g to 300 ng/g, with most advisories set at around 200 ng/g.”
Willow Springs Pond also had by far the highest concentration of forever chemicals in samples of the water itself, well above the EPA’s current drinking water guideline of 70 parts per trillion. Fish sampled included perch, carp, sunfish, northern pike and more.
Colorado water activists said the report confirms their fears and leaves many questions.
“We are just beginning to understand the impact of PFAS chemicals on aquatic species and wildlife. PFAS need to be banned in order to stop the on-going poisoning of our children, the water we drink, and the foods we consume,” said Fran Silva Blayney, a Colorado Springs activist who follows Fountain Creek PFAS issues, and a member of Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
“A small fish sample is a step in the right direction for determining the scope of the PFAS contamination issue in Colorado,” Blayney said. “However, there needs to be more surface water testing, and fish sampling, and testing of wildlife that consume fish to evaluate the impact that PFAS chemicals have on our food web systems.”
Blayney said she watches birds take up fish from the impacted waters, and wonders what their PFAS contamination will turn out to be.
Research on the dangers of PFAS forms, which come in thousands of chemical varieties, is ongoing, the state said.
“The project has a number of limitations and was too small to determine whether PFAS in the fish sampled are high enough to harm human health,” according to the study summary from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “CDPHE will continue to share information and take action to protect and notify the public as we work with federal, state, and local partners to conduct additional testing of PFAS in fish and find innovative solutions to protect Coloradans.”
The state said “Five of the 49 (~10%) fish samples from our pilot project had PFOS levels above 200 ng/g. All five of these fish were caught from the Willow Springs Ponds.” PFOS is one variety of the forever chemicals.
Colorado appears to be walking a narrow path between warnings about PFAS in foods and putting the research so far into context.
“People who are concerned about PFAS in fish caught in Colorado waterbodies may want to limit the amount of recreationally-caught fish they eat. However, fish is part of a healthy diet,” said State Toxicologist Kristy Richardson, in written responses to questions about the study.
“The U.S. FDA has tested fish products from grocery stores nationwide and while PFOS was found in those samples, the agency concluded ‘our safety assessments have shown no cause for avoiding these foods.’” Richardson said.
EPA is working to develop fish advisory program guidance in spring 2023, and Colorado will evaluate the guidance to determine if it can be implemented here.
Efforts to identify the alarming extent of PFAS pollution in Colorado, and how to set limits on water or food consumption, are underway on multiple fronts. Colorado is among the first states to require certain industries to limit PFAS emissions in their water discharge permits, with a recommended permit requiring cuts at the Suncor Energy refinery currently under review. Suncor’s discharge goes into Sand Creek, and then immediately into the South Platte River.
Colorado also has community water sampling programs underway in areas known or suspected to be impacted, concentrated heavily in areas where runoff from airfield firefighting foam or wildfire firefighting materials may have impacted local water supplies. The state is also implementing grant programs where it agrees to take PFAS firefighting foam off the hands of local firefighting departments if they can find effective alternatives.
Nationally, consumer and science groups have been pressing the EPA to make its drinking water guidelines for PFAS into enforceable, strict limits, and set the bar much lower than the current suggestion of 70 parts per trillion. Colorado health officials have said that if the EPA does not act swiftly enough, they are considering setting their own drinking water standard.
Municipal wastewater treatment plants must now test their treated outflows for PFAS levels and report to the state, beginning last January.
Fountain, where the El Paso fish samples were taken, had to shut down its municipal water supply in 2015 after PFAS was detected, replacing it with supplies from a cleaner Pueblo Reservoir. The city eventually began treating its water sources with PFAS-removing materials supplied by the U.S. Air Force, where much of the firefighting foam runoff originated.
In 2021, The Colorado Sun reported in conjunction with analysis from the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that the state may have more sites that have stored or handled PFAS than anywhere in the nation.
Some Colorado lawmakers want to ban the sale of common consumer goods made with PFAS, including carpet and kitchen items, and are sponsoring a bill with a partial ban beginning in 2024.