In mid-July I attended Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission meeting to join concerned stakeholders, environmental leaders, and organizations in providing compelling testimonies about the use of poly- and per-flouroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS, a class of chemical that can be found in a range of uses including flame retardants, has been connected to significant health problems including cancer.
As a resident of Pueblo, I am concerned about the health and safety of my community members, many of whom live downstream of two PFAS contamination sites located along Fountain Creek. Rural households and cattle ranches served by the creek’s water are exposed to PFAS, which adversely affects the health of living organisms.
I was somewhat encouraged by the Commission’s subsequent unanimous vote on July 14th to adopt Policy 20-1: Colorado’s first policy that put new limits on PFAS. Additionally, in 2019 Governor Polis signed a bill which banned firefighting foam that contains PFAS. These are big wins for the environment and for public health.
Colorado continues to see advances in PFAS policies; just last month, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced the Guaranteeing Equipment Safety for Firefighters Act of 2020. Personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by firefighters, whose rates of occupational cancer are higher than those of the general public, is often made with PFAS. The bill would yield recommendations on how to eliminate PFAS in firefighters’ PPE.
We need to protect firefighters, whose lives are put in double jeopardy by the cancer-causing PFAS traditionally contained in their personal equipment and by the increased incidence of fires caused by climate change. Coloradans are enduring a season of extreme heat, drought, and resulting wildfires; at least 76% of the state is experiencing drought, compared with 16% this time last year.
The wildfires stretch firefighters thin during wildfire season as they also continue to fight the coronavirus crisis. Performing their work efficiently is especially important to fighting the pandemic; keeping wildfires contained can help prevent crowded disaster evacuation centers– the kind of setting where COVID-19 spreads more easily.
While the Water Quality Control Commission, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, and Perlmutter are all working hard to protect Colorado’s first responders, people, and environment from PFAS, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) opposed regulating PFAS as recently as 2018. He indicated no sense of urgency about the situation; he wanted to see the results of a health study included in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act—a study that will take five to seven years to complete. This is in spite of well-documented research that nearly 80,000 people living near the Peterson Air Force base southeast of Colorado Springs are exposed to dangerously high levels of PFAS contamination from firefighting foam, and have been so for years.
Gardner’s recent bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Firefighters are first responders to wildfires on public lands; they deserve adequate protection that will enable them to perform their jobs without the added burden of the occupational hazards of PFAS. Gardner pivoted from his 2018 vote to cut the LWCF by 90%, to now fully funding it. Surely he can find the wherewithal to abandon his current “wait-and-see” stance on PFAS, to now support eliminating firefighters’ exposure to this occupational hazard.
We call on Senator Gardner to support Congressman Perlmutter’s bill to protect firefighters from the occupational hazard of PFAS.
We need the Trump administration to take climate action to mitigate the devastation caused by extreme weather events including wildfires.
Firefighters put their lives on the line every day to protect and serve our communities. It is only right that they have proper PPE that is not inherently dangerous and will protect them in their acts of service.
Jamie Valdez is a Pueblo resident and the Chair of the Sierra Club’s Sangre de Cristo Group.