A Closer Look at PFC Contamination in Southern El Paso County

Sep 28, 2016

Two Colorado based law firms filed class action suits last week over water contamination in southern El Paso County. It's the latest installment in a saga that's been ongoing since May. That was when the EPA revised their standards and announced a new health advisory for perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. The chemicals were detected above the new health advisory levels in the drinking water in Security, Widefield, and Fountain. 

So what's the story with these lawsuits?

Suits were filed last week by Hannon Law, out of Denver, and by Colorado Springs-based McDivitt Law, working with another firm out of New York. They're class action suits, meaning there are a few named plaintiffs, but, if a judge approves, they could cover many more people living in the water districts of Security, Widefield, and Fountain. The suits are very similar, and they lay out a number of allegations, including claims of loss of property value and personal injury as a result of PFC exposure.

McDivitt Law is one of two Colorado based firms filing lawsuits on behalf of residents of Security, Widefield, and Fountain.
Credit Jake Brownell / 91.5 KRCC

And who are the defendants?

The suits name companies that sold firefighting foams containing PFCs to Peterson Air Force Base. The cases name 6 companies total, including the chemical giant 3M. The Air Force says it used foams from these companies for years in training exercises at Peterson Air Force Base, and many people believe they're the source of the water contamination. The suits allege that these companies knew or should have known that PFCs from the foam could contaminate water supplies, and should have warned their customers--in this case, the Air Force.

And what exactly are the risks associated with PFC exposure?

Scientists are still studying the human health effects, but possible links have been found between PFC exposure and low infant birth weight, high cholesterol, certain cancers, liver problems, and other health issues. 

So the suits allege these companies knew there were potential risks associated with PFCs. What evidence is there to back that up?

So far, all we have are filed complaints, which don't really provide a whole lot of concrete evidence. But in both cases, lawyers point to a program allegedly started by 3M in the 1980s. Supposedly this program looked at how staff handled PFCs, as well as whether the chemicals build up in the body over time. So the implication seems to be that, internally, 3M may have been worried about the health effects of these chemicals for decades, but they continued to sell the products anyway.

In a written statement to KRCC, an attorney for 3M disputed these claims. He said the company did in fact provide instructions for safe use of the foams, and added that 3M has "prevailed in cases exploring similar issues."

Officials at a public meeting in July explained the EPA's PFC health advisory.
Credit Jake Brownell / 91.5 KRCC

PFC contamination is an issue in many communities around the country, and these are not the first lawsuits to spring up about these chemicals. What can you tell us about some of those other cases?

The first really big PFC case actually dates back to the late 1990s. It was brought by a West Virginia farmer who lived near a DuPont plant, where a perfluorinated compound called PFOA was being used to make Teflon. Attorneys in that case discovered that DuPont had been studying the health effects of PFOA for decades, and that, internally they were aware the chemical had made its way into the local water supply.

In a 2004 class action settlement, DuPont agreed to pay more than 100 million dollars to clean up the water and fund a health study for residents of the area. In recent years, people there with diseases linked to PFC exposure have also begun filing individual suits against DuPont. Just this summer, a man with testicular cancer was awarded 5.1 million dollars in his case against the company. But other similar cases, like one against 3M in Minnesota, have been less successful. 

So, leaving aside the lawsuits--technically speaking, these chemicals are technically still unregulated, right?

Yeah, that's right. Now, that's not to say that the government hasn't done anything about PFCs. In fact, in 2005, following the class action suit against DuPont, the EPA fined the company 16 million dollars for failing to disclose what it knew about the chemicals. At the time it was a record fine. The agency has also worked with manufacturers over the last 15 years to phase PFCs out of production altogether. But, these chemicals are still unregulated, and the EPA has had to rely largely on voluntary cooperation from manufacturers and municipalities to deal with the issue. 

Volunteers and empty pallets at the end of the final day of Care and Share Food Bank's free bottled water program for Security, Widefield, and Fountain residents. July 29th, 2016.
Credit Jake Brownell / 91.5 KRCC

Why is that? If the EPA has been aware of the potential risks of PFCs for all this time, why weren't steps taken sooner to regulate these chemicals.

That's a complicated question to answer, but, in part, it has to do with a 40-year-old piece of legislation called the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which governs the EPA's ability to regulate and require testing of chemicals. An EPA spokesperson explained to KRCC that when the act was passed in 1976, PFCs were already on the market, and were, along with 60,000 other chemicals, grandfathered in under the legislation. So, according to this spokesperson, the EPA's ability to require testing and restrict these PFCs has been "very limited."

It's worth noting that just this summer, the Toxic Substances Control Act was overhauled, giving the EPA more tools and authority to address concerns about chemicals. So things are changing on that front. But it's still too early to tell what will happen with PFCs and actual regulation.