Health workers are piecing together a complicated puzzle in El Paso County, Colo. In January, three cities — Security, Fountain and Widefield — noticed synthetic chemicals known as PFCs in the drinking water.
Historically, these compounds had been used to make products like carpet and firefighting foam. The Environmental Protection Agency has linked exposure to low birth weights, and even forms of cancer. And the Pentagon says it's examining hundreds of military base sites for possible contamination.
In the city of Security, south of Colorado Springs, resident Brenda Piontkowski has visited a filtered water station every other day for months because she says water at home isn't safe.
"All I know is it's not healthy," she says. "I can't drink my tap water."
That's because her tap water has PFCs, or perfluorinated compounds. Most people have been exposed to very small amounts in fabric or cookware.
This May, the agency made health advisory levels for PFCs more strict. "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," says Joel Beauvais, an EPA deputy assistant administrator. "And they would also be protective against the developmental effects that might be associated with short-term exposures during pregnancy."
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.
"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," says Daniel Medina, who has helped coordinate PFC research across the Air Force.
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.
"The Air Force is committed to human health and the environment," says Angelina Casarez, an Air Force spokeswoman. "We are working diligently to sample groundwater and drinking water to ensure the safety and well-being of those on and off our installations."
She says people who are concerned about their water should contact their local health department or water authority.
Meanwhile, 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: drinking water that's 100 percent PFC free.
"That's not as easy as you might think," he says. "It's not a matter of just flipping a switch and shutting off a well."
The city 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.
"This has not affected our rates yet, but unless there's relief from somebody else, it has to," Heald says.
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 Colorado 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.