Residents with contaminated drinking water struggle to get tested for exposure 

Blood in the water

click to enlarge Air Force officials say they won't measure airmen's exposure to contaminants because CDPHE doesn't recommend it. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Air Force officials say they won't measure airmen's exposure to contaminants because CDPHE doesn't recommend it.

Angie Golliher was 34 when she found out she's got the bone density of an 80-year-old.

On one level, the diagnosis, which came five years ago, was shocking, but on another, it explained why she was in so much pain all the time. "My back is always killing me, I get fatigued easily and see dots all over," she says.

But that's not the most painful part. In May, she learned her condition may be connected to high levels of perfluorinated chemicals in her family's drinking water that were introduced by a firefighting foam used at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.

The Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory informed her that this class of man-made, unregulated chemicals — otherwise known as PFCs — is linked not only to thyroid and kidney issues that could be exacerbating her bone deterioration, but to a whole host of other scary side effects like immune system malfunction, heart disease and cancer.

"So now I'm stressed thinking my kids are going to have the same problems as me because of the water I was giving them," Golliher says.

Angie and her husband, Shane, had their first child in 1997 in Oregon. She is a healthy weight. But their younger two, born in 2004 and 2012 in Security-Widefield, are both underweight. Their daughter, Shyann, is now 12 and just 4 feet and 50 pounds — quite a bit smaller than all her classmates. For now, she's a standout softball player and gymnast, but her parents wonder what could arise down the line. Shyann has been drinking contaminated water all her life.

"The damage is done," Shane says. "There's no telling what the outcomes are going to be for our kids who were raised up on this water. And we're supposed to just be OK with that?"

The Gollihers are not OK with it, which is why they joined a class-action lawsuit attempting to hold six foam manufacturers responsible for "knowingly" and "recklessly" putting the foam on the marketplace without adequately warning of its dangers.

They and eight other plaintiffs represented by the McDivitt Law Firm want everyone who was impacted to get free and regular screenings for all the ailments they may now be at risk for. And they want the chemical companies to pay for it.

Now, any individuals' medical needs depend on their exposure — i.e., how much of the bad stuff they've got in their system — and the only way to accurately assess that is with a blood test for PFC concentration, which runs about $700 a pop, according to quotes the Gollihers have gotten.

"Those needles are enough to make a grown man cry, but I'd get that test in a heartbeat if I could," Shane Golliher says. "We just don't have $3,500 lying around."

And nobody is stepping up to help. Health insurers have largely denied coverage in these cases; the chemical companies have no obligation to front money they may owe in the future; and government officials have so far opted not to pay for blood tests.

Well, not all governments: The state health departments of New York, New Hampshire and Vermont have all set up blood testing clinics for people affected by similar contamination, but the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not chosen that path.

"The reason [for not recommending blood testing] is that it's not predictive of health effects so it's not really helpful in diagnosis or treatment," Mike Van Dyke, chief epidemiologist at CDPHE explained at an information session in July.

"We just don't think it's necessary to try to measure the exposure," Van Dyke added, "when we're focused on eliminating it."

Built into that logic is the reality that perfluorinated chemicals are quite persistent, meaning that once built up, they take a very, very long time to break down. (There is no artificial means, as of now, to degrade them.) So just knowing that you've got PFCs in your system doesn't give you any real tool to get rid of them.

Still, ignorance is not bliss for the Gollihers, who prefer to be as informed as possible when making decisions that impact the family's health. Early detection can be the difference between life and death.

Aside from its medical relevance, knowing the exact concentration of PFCs in their blood has some obvious legal relevance. It could be admitted as evidence in support of the claim that they've been exposed.

In other words, the Gollihers are stuck in a catch-22: They need blood tests that show the chemical companies caused their injury to win money, but to get those blood tests, they need money.

Blood tests or not, plaintiffs' attorney Tony Tracy thinks they can still prove their claim because it's well-established that the Gollihers' water was contaminated and that the contaminant has detrimental health effects. But ultimately, he points out, it's not just about winning a lawsuit or squeezing money out of misbehaving corporations.

"This is a public health crisis," Tracy told the Indy. "We can't just sit around waiting for a resolution; we need the government to step up on behalf of the public now. Say, worst-case scenario is they don't get reimbursed [by the chemical companies]. They've still done right by the people."

The Indy reached out to every elected official who represents the Fountain, Security-Widefield area but got few responses.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, through an email from his spokesman, says he's "encouraged by the proactive response taken by the Air Force" and will "continue to monitor this situation moving forward."

For the record, the Air Force has pledged money for water filtration and environmental remediation efforts, but not for blood testing of even its own personnel who've handled the foam.

"We look to agencies that do this for a living for guidance [and] they haven't recommended it as something folks should do, so consequently the Air Force is not in a position to spend taxpayer dollars on it," Mark Correll, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary of environment, safety and infrastructure, said at a recent press conference. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Gov. John Hickenlooper also replied, both deferring to CDPHE's judgment.

"It just kind of feels like nobody cares about us," Shane Golliher commented. "As if we needed another reason to be sick and tired of politicians."

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