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Kuhlman’s Climb Against the Odds for BCPP

“Forever Chemicals” and Erin Kuhlman’s climb for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners

This June, Osprey’s Erin Kuhlman is climbing Mount Shasta for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners as part of their annual effort to raise funds and awareness for their cause. We’re proud to sponsor her climb, tell her story and aid her in fundraising(Se abre en una ventana nueva).

Chemistry is all around us. It’s in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the ground we tread, the air we breathe. For the most part, the compounds, substances and reactions that make us, surround us and mingle with us go altogether unnoticed. They’re just elements of life, after all.

Sometimes, however, the chemical world breaches the envelope between behind-the-scenes and font-of-mind. For Erin Kuhlman, that moment came in 2016.

Kuhlman has been a Customer Service Lead at Osprey, working at the forefront of consumer questions, warranties and repairs here in Cortez, Colorado. If you’ve ever called in or emailed us for a buckle replacement, warranty claim or fit assistance, there’s a decent chance you’ve talked to her.

A woman with her black dog posing at the top of our mountain, with mountain ranges in the background Erin Kuhlman and her dog Bear

But customer service wasn’t always Kuhlman’s calling. She moved to Cortez to work as Assistant Executive Director of the Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP), a local nonprofit that provided a hands-on environment with holistic farm-to-table education for kids.

“We don’t get that type of education in our school system …“ Kuhlman said. “You get this silly [food] pyramid that really is not good anymore. It doesn’t really keep up with the science or the times.”

Working for MSTFP was right up Kuhlman’s alley.

As a kid, growing up in Security-Widefield, Colorado, she lived near Venetucci Farm, a historic community fixture(Se abre en una ventana nueva) that served as a local cornerstone at the farmers markets, offered CSA shares and provided fresh vegetables to local restaurants.

Every year, they’d invite the community to their pumpkin patch to pick out soon-to-be Jack o’ Lanterns—a tradition Erin remembers fondly from her childhood. It became a place where children, students and community members alike could escape the growing front-range sprawl and learn about topics ranging from canning and cheese making, to small-scale agriculture.

It must’ve made an impression.

After high school, Kuhlman decided to attend college at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, studying nutrition. In 2016 her curriculum brought her back to Venetucci Farms as an apprentice, learning about harvesting, planting, soil health, water conservation and the nutritional value of food consumed while in-season.

Three people examining a cob of corn in a field Image via Erin Kuhlman

“As you know, as we get into those urban settings, we get a little more disconnected from our land and understanding this full cycle,” Kuhlman explains. “So, it was very much an oasis out there to provide education for youth or adults alike to understand this full circle of growing things to become nutritious in your body later.”

It was a rewarding experience, returning back to her community and working there through her degree—an experience that certainly influenced her career decision to relocate to the southwest to work for MSTFP.

While doing her apprenticeship, however, things at Venetucci took a turn. A year earlier, in 2015, water testing in the area had found high levels of concerning chemicals in the Widefield Aquifer, the region’s primary water supply. In 2016, that investigation turned towards Venetucci to examine the farm. It changed everything for them.

“We encountered an investigation on that farm, [and that’s] when they discovered that the groundwater was contaminated [by] this Air Force base,” Kuhlman said.

PFAS in the Water

From Venetucci Farm, it’s less than ten miles by car to Peterson Air Force Base (PAFB)—now known as Peterson Space Force Base. Formed in April of 1942 as the Colorado Springs Army Air Base(Se abre en una ventana nueva), it was originally established to train pilots for photographic reconnaissance during World War II.

In August that same year, four months into the base’s operation, 1st Lt. Edward J. Peterson was beginning a training mission. During takeoff, the left engine of his aircraft failed, resulting in a catastrophic crash. Peterson was rescued from the burning wreckage by a base fire crew and transported to the hospital where he passed away that afternoon—the first Coloradan killed in a flying accident at the airfield.

The base was renamed in his honor.

A welcome sign for US Air Force Peterson Air Force Base - West Gate Peterson Air Force Base Public Affairs

Two decades later, the United States Navy and 3M were working together to develop a new firefighting foam(Se abre en una ventana nueva) that was particularly good at fighting liquid fuel fires. Their new Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) had a low viscosity thanks to an abundance of 3M’s PFAS chemicals, first used in Scotchguard, which allowed AFFF to spread rapidly and smother actively burning hydrocarbon fuels—just like those used in aircraft.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, shortened to PFAS, are extremely practical in firefighting applications due to their remarkable stability. That stability keeps them non-flammable—ideal when fighting a burning airplane—but also earns them a fitting nickname: “forever chemicals.” These man-made compounds are extremely durable and don’t break down after they’ve been produced, practically existing forever onward.

It’s unclear whether AFFF would’ve saved Lt. Peterson’s life, had they had it when PAFB’s namesake crashed his plane decades earlier, but the firefighting foam proved broadly effective at putting out volatile aircraft fires. By the 1970s, PAFB was using AFFF for active firefighting and training on-base, using it in drills and equipment tests.

Decades later still, in 2004, AFFF became the official firefighting agent across North America, where the FAA requires all certified airports and bases to use, test and periodically discharge AFFF(Se abre en una ventana nueva).

Routine use of AFFF, while critical for training and incidents, happened to have a nasty side effect, effectively introducing large quantities of forever chemicals into the ground or sewers wherever it was introduced.

In the case of PAFB, just miles from Venetucci Farm, those PFAS would inadvertently enter into the Widefield Aquifer. And besides the basic FAA required uses of AFFF, The Gazette(Se abre en una ventana nueva) reports that the base actively pumped AFFF-tainted water into a storage tank, dumping it into Colorado Springs sewers as often as three times a year.

Over time, as PAFB continued using, training with and disposing of their AFFF into the local water supply, PFAS levels in the Widefield Aquifer grew in concentration.

That contamination was first discovered by health agencies in 2015 and, while Erin was apprenticing for her nutrition program in 2016, Venetucci Farm’s soil tested positive for high levels of PFAS contamination as well.

The farm was shuttered.

What the PFAS?

Not only are PFAS long-lasting once they’ve entered an environment, they can be toxic to the plants, fish, wildlife and humans that consume PFAS contaminated water and food sources.

“PFAS are persistent pollutants accumulating in waters and soil and recoverable in foods …,” according to a 2021 report in the National Library of Medicine(Se abre en una ventana nueva). “Humans are daily exposed to PFAS because these compounds are ubiquitous and, when assimilated, they are difficult to be eliminated, persisting for years both in humans and animals.”

According to the CDC(Se abre en una ventana nueva), more research is necessary to understand the scope of health effects that PFAS may have on human populations, but animal and human studies suggest that they can affect growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function, immune systems and even injure the liver. Some studies have found connections between PFAS exposure and increased risk of breast cancer, according to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners(Se abre en una ventana nueva).

We don’t yet have a full picture of PFAS toxicity, but that uncertainty is part of the reason why widespread exposure can be so concerning.

Since they were first invented in the 1930s, PFAS have become widely pervasive across industries. Before firefighting foams, their use became widespread in non-stick and waterproof coatings. Today, PFAS are still used widely in types of non-stick cookware, grease-resistant food packaging, stain-resistant upholstering, and outdoor clothing and gear.

Because of their wide application, nearly everyone is, or will be, exposed to small amounts of PFAS at some point. It’s entirely likely you have trace PFAS in your system right now.

But for the people of Security-Widefield, the level of contamination is more concerning.

The Communal Costs of Contamination

While it’s unclear how much PFAS plants can absorb, Venetucci Farm’s agricultural operations shut down “out of an abundance of caution(Se abre en una ventana nueva),” according to a 2018 Colorado Public Radio report.

Water, soil and food samples were sent to Colorado School of Mines Soil where testing concluded that the farm’s fields were contaminated with enough PFAS that food production would have to cease indefinitely.

This closure of Venetucci Farm represented a cultural loss to the community, according to Kuhlman.

“You have a whole family farm where that’s their income. That’s their connection to the community, for these kids to go there and go pick their pumpkins or, you know, go pull a carrot out of the ground and understand it doesn’t come in a plastic bag. I can't even recall if there's a farm within another 50-mile radius that was as big as [Venetucci Farm] was and provided the community support and education that it did. So yeah, for that front-range Springs community and Security-Widefield that was devastating, to have that piece of your land stripped away due to something that probably could have been prevented.”

Worse, Venetucci Farm supplemented a significant portion of its revenues, supporting its programs and operations, directly through the lease of their water rights back to the city. The contamination of the aquifer not only took away their ability to produce food for the community, but canceled that lease as well.

Today, the farm still no longer grows agricultural foods. Instead, it has reinvented itself as an urban flower farm(Se abre en una ventana nueva), growing dahlias for decoration rather than carrots for consumption. Its renowned pumpkin harvest has come back as an annual event around Halloween as well—just don’t make any pies from the pickings.

A group of pumpkins stacked together USDA/FPAC photo by Christopher Willis

Fortunately, Venetucci has found ways to revive their role in the community. But contamination still has had its costs.

Their farm serves as an exemplar, highlighting the broader issues that long-term contamination poses for Security-Widefield. The firefighting foam that was dumped into local water supplies by PAFB not only affected a local organic farm, but the region’s entire water table.

“So we’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking that water for decades—generations now.” Kuhlman says.

Mile-long pipelines, specialized water treatment plants and cleanup initiatives for the Security-Widefield area have racked up tens of millions in financial costs(Se abre en una ventana nueva), with the Air Force footing the bill, in order to restore drinking water to the area. Some of the treatment plants have only recently been completed, and other effected water districts outside of the immediate vicinity aren’t receiving support with their cleanup.

Meanwhile, many residents are left wondering what levels of PFAS have accumulated in their bodies over the years, uncertain about how that may affect their long-term health. Full blood panel tests for PFAS cost upwards of $700, a price that’s out of reach for many.

Since moving to Cortez, Colorado, Kuhlman hasn’t herself been tested, but her grandparents, who still live in the area, are getting bloodwork done as part of a class action lawsuit against the Air Force. Their results are primarily being used as evidence for the lawsuit, which has been escalated to the Supreme Court, but are also being reviewed by their doctor for medical purposes.

Three people standing together, two holding glasses of wine, with a yellow house and grass in the background Erin and her grandparents at Sutcliffe Winery in Cortez, CO

Their bloodwork shows PFAS levels that are several multiples higher than averages for the typical American.

“It’s painting a bigger picture of their health as they worked with their doctor,” Kuhlman said. “As they also go through this lawsuit through the Supreme Court, too.”

Her grandma has some serious thyroid issues and other cancer-related concerns which, according to Kuhlman, are being attributed to PFAS exposure by their doctor. Her grandfather also has some health concerns, which Kuhlman thinks may also be related.

“I wouldn’t rule it out for sure,” she said.

Prevention is the Solution: Climb Against the Odds

The nature of PFAS contamination means that the only real solution is prevention. They’re called forever chemicals for a reason, after all, and once they’ve entered an environment it is costly, if possible at all, to remove them and mitigate the risks.

This prevention mindset is championed by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners(Se abre en una ventana nueva) (BCPP), whose tagline reads “Exposing the cause is the cure.”

Climb against the odds 2022 image, with the breast cancer prevention partners logo in the background; image features four climbers heading up a snow covered mountain Image via Breast Cancer Prevention Partners

Celebrating 30-years of action this year, BCPP “works to prevent breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation.”

Kuhlman’s own exposure to PFAS chemicals does make her wonder if she’ll face breast cancer herself someday. It’s one of the many sources of exposure that BCPP works against, as several PFAS chemicals have been linked(Se abre en una ventana nueva) to increased risk of breast cancer.

Kuhlman is proud to be participating in BCPP’s Climb Against the Odds fundraiser(Se abre en una ventana nueva) this year to help aid their efforts. This June, she’ll embark on a 3-day climb, with a team of fellow fundraisers, up Northern California’s 14,179 ft. Mt. Shasta to raise awareness for breast cancer prevention.

“I have family that have been exposed to breast cancer … but the reason I wanted to participate in [Climb Against the Odds] is because this is bigger than just climbing a mountain,” Kuhlman says.

For her, this experience is about creating awareness around breast cancer and how we can better protect people and the environment from its risk factors—including toxic contamination.

“I also want to represent Osprey,” Kuhlman says.

A woman posing next to a boulder atop a mountain Image via Erin Kuhlman

Supporting Kuhlman’s Climb

Over the coming months, Kuhlman is training for her Climb Against the Odds while raising at least $6,000(Se abre en una ventana nueva) for the cause. An avid hiker, mountain biker and bikepacker, she’s excited for the challenge. It’ll be her first multi-day alpine ascent.

“I’ve done fourteeners in a day, I mean being in the heart of the San Juans in Colorado I’ve scaled quite a few of them,” Kuhlman explains. “But yeah, you know, I’ve not done anything in terms of glacier climbing, so that will definitely be new for me.”

BCPP connects fundraisers with a trainer for a 16-week training plan in preparation for the climb itself, making it accessible for practically anyone to participate in Climb Against the Odds if they wanted to.

“[Our trainer’s] name is Dane, and he’s scaled the mountain over 100 times already, so he’s got a pretty good awareness of what muscle groups and some fitness and cardio loads we should be expected to progress through over the weeks,” Kuhlman explains. “Even if somebody that was not completely fit or is coming from, you know, straight from the couch to climbing a fourteener, it’s really a robust plan.”

They also offer support with fundraising efforts to help reach the $6,000 participant goal. Donations have rolled in from fellow Osprey employees, friends and family alike. She’s set up a donation-based snack station at Osprey HQ—which has partially helped fuel the writing of this article—as well. Tapping the local community, Kuhlman also held a fundraiser at WildEdge Brewing Collective(Se abre en una ventana nueva) here in Cortez, which donated $1 for every Monkey Wrench Pale Ale sold at their tap house. Thanks to fellow employees and the community members that attended, WildEdge ran their keg dry that day.

If you’d like to donate and support Erin Kuhlman’s Climb Against the Odds, we hope you’ll visit her fundraising page(Se abre en una ventana nueva) and learn more about the climb.

Osprey has sponsored two other employee climbers in years past, whose stories you can read here:

Mary Jane Bauman’s Climb Against the Odds, 2021(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Katie Meyer’s Climb Against The Odds, 2019(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Erin Kuhlman was Customer Service Lead at time of writing. In early April, 2022, she was promoted to Dealer Service Supervisor, helping oversee the team that works with Osprey’s retail partners.

A woman standing next to a sign that reads Kokomo Pass holding her mountain bike next to her, which is packed with gear