Chemicals contaminating water supplies in three Colorado communities south of Colorado Springs first came into widespread use when 3M developed a firefighting foam at the request of the U.S. Navy, which needed a better way to extinguish often close-quarter fires on its ships.
“Aqueous Film Forming Foam,” a white substance often fired from hoses, came online about 1970 and has been widely used to fight fuel fires ever since, according to a report in The New York Times. It is key firefighting tool around commercial airports and their fuel tank farms, for example.
The perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, in the foam were often sprayed directly onto the ground during military base training sessions, according to The Times, which also credited the substance with probably saving hundreds of lives, including those of pilots in plane crashes.
The PFCs found in the Widefield Aquifer, which provides in part municipal water for the communities of Widefield, Security and Fountain, “possibly” emanated from nearby Peterson Air Force Base, the Air Force has acknowledged, while taking a lead role in additional testing and cleanup.
PFCs are unregulated chemicals and are also used for a variety of manufacturing purposes, including clothing, carpets, and stick-free cookware. But the Environmental Protection Agency now associates PFCs with low birth weight, cancers, thyroid disease and other health concerns.
The PFC contamination reaches far beyond the three Colorado towns, The Times report said. Defense Department officials now say that 2,000 sites may be impacted, most of them on or near Air Force bases in Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“We’re addressing it aggressively,” Mark A. Correll, a deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and infrastructure at the Air Force, told The Times. “The Air Force will take responsibility for its actions.”
The EPA in May issued a new health advisory on two of the best-known perfluorinated chemicals, suggesting that communities keep their water below 70 parts per trillion for the two combined. Fountain tested at twice that level, Widefield at more than three times the guideline, and Security showed levels nearly 20 times the guideline, The Times reported.