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San Juan Basin Public Health announces free well testing for ‘forever chemicals’

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will provide funding to test for PFAS
San Juan Basin Public Health is accepting applications for private well testing for PFAS or “forever chemicals.” PFAS are found in a large variety of consumer, commercial and industrial products and are linked to several serious health effects on humans. (Durango Herald file)

San Juan Basin Public Health has begun to solicit applications from owners of private wells to have their water tested for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”

The department first opened applications in October for testing, although it was not fully prepared to proceed until last week. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has provided $10,000 to SJBPH to conduct outreach, while CDPHE will pay for the sampling and testing directly.

PFAS refers to thousands of chemicals that are commonly used in a wide range of consumer, commercial and industrial products. The chemicals offer great utility because they can be used to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. However, the characteristics that make them so useful also mean they do not easily breakdown in the natural environment, causing them to circulate through dirt, water, air and even wildlife. Although research into specific health effects is ongoing, studies have linked PFAS to a variety of issues including an increased risk of certain cancers, developmental issues and reduced immune responses.

A state law will take effect in 2024 banning the sale of many consumer products that contain PFAS.

SJBPH’s Environmental Health Director Brian Devine said he hopes that well-owners will sign up for the testing as soon as possible.

“The more people we can get signed up now or by Dec. 8, we can get that list over to the contractors and they can do a big sampling push in December,” Devine said. “... The faster people sign up for this, the faster that they will get test results.”

There is no limit on the number of wells that can be tested using the grant’s resources, Devine said. However, the department hopes to conduct testing efficiently by doing as much of it at the same time as possible. The grant expires in June 2023.

CDPHE is funding PFAS testing across the state, Devine said. Representatives from the agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The intention is to target high-risk areas located near where PFAS may have been used or stored, including airports, landfills and some fire stations.

Devine said people living in the vicinity of the Durango-La Plata County Airport should consider having their wells tested, as well as those living near current or former landfills.

“We hope everybody tests,” Devine said. “If we got every well user in Archuleta and La Plata counties to test I would be extremely happy. But we are focusing on some of these facilities and there is a pretty wide buffer zone around them just because of how the groundwater works.”

Devine also stressed that the department is not pointing fingers at any facilities that may have used those chemicals given they are so ubiquitous in a wide range of products and have been in use since the 1940s.

PFAS have been specifically linked to certain types of firefighting foam, and CDPHE announced a “buyback” program in 2021 to prevent qualifying fire departments from continuing to use foam containing the chemicals. Durango Fire Protection District said it would participate in the program.

Fire fighting foam, pictured here in use at a fire on County Road 230 in 2014, commonly contained PFAS. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment began a buyback program in 2021 to help eliminate the foam from being used. (Durango Herald file)

The state has an extensive mapping effort underway to help the public understand where PFAS hazards could be located.

“I hope people get tested because this is really the first opportunity to do this kind of testing in private wells on a widespread basis,” Devine said. “There has been some groundwater testing in other parts of Colorado, but that was associated with specific sources of concern or even known contamination. But because these are so widely used, and they don't breakdown easily in the environment, we also need to be doing these wider-scale or wider-scope testing programs.”

CDPHE has emergency assistance grants available for well-owners who find PFAS levels that exceed the EPA limits.

The local public health department will hold an information session from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Durango Public Library. Additional sessions throughout the two counties will be announced soon.

Anyone interested in having their well tested can contact the department at eh@sjbpublichealth.org or 335-2060.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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