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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

CDC to study chemical exposure at Fairchild Air Force Base, seven other military installations

Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights, on Friday May 19, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Fairchild Air Force Base is one of eight U.S. military installations where federal scientists will study human exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the toxic man-made chemicals that have contaminated West Plains water supplies.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will conduct the research with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agencies announced Thursday.

“We are pleased our community has been chosen for this important assessment,” Airway Heights Mayor Kevin Richey said in a statement. “The health and safety of our citizens is our number one priority.”

PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1950s in industry and consumer products, including a fire retardant foam that seeped into groundwater from training sites at Fairchild. The discovery of the chemicals prompted Airway Heights to flush millions of gallons of tainted water from its tap system in May 2017. The city now pipes in water from Spokane.

The two most prevalent PFAS compounds, known as PFOS and PFOA, were used in food packaging, cookware and stain repellents. They were phased out of use in the United States by the mid-2000s, but experts say similar replacement chemicals, including one called GenX, may be just as hazardous.

The chemicals degrade extremely slowly, if at all, and are known to accumulate in the environment and in people. Tests on lab animals have linked the compounds to an array of health problems, including cancer, low birth weight, high cholesterol and developmental problems.

The CDC said its nationwide assessment will build on pilot studies done in Pennsylvania and New York. The goal is to learn how the chemicals get into people’s bodies through various environmental sources.

People in each of the eight communities will be randomly selected to participate, and will be asked to provide blood and urine samples, the CDC said in a statement.

“The assessments will generate information about exposure to PFAS in affected communities and will extend beyond the communities identified, as the lessons learned can also be applied to communities facing similar PFAS drinking water exposures,” said Patrick Breysse, director of the ATSDR and the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. “This will serve as a foundation for future studies evaluating the impact of PFAS exposure on human health.”

The other locations selected for the study are Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base in West Virginia, Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, Reese Technology Center in Texas, Stewart Air National Guard Base in New York and New Castle Air National Guard Base in Delaware.

Richey thanked U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, D-Wash., who in 2017 helped secure $62 million in defense spending aimed at PFAS water remediation around military installations.

The announcement comes a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a multipronged plan to address PFAS chemicals. Environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers criticized the plan and acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, saying the agency should commit to a timeline for setting an enforceable limit on concentrations of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.