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Private well owners near site of Fairchild contamination can have water tested by Indiana researchers

Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights in this May 2017 photo. Private well owners near Airway Heights are eligible for free water testing kits as part of an Indiana University study looking at the spread of certain chemicals found in firefighting foam and other products in groundwater.   (COLIN MULVANY)
Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights in this May 2017 photo. Private well owners near Airway Heights are eligible for free water testing kits as part of an Indiana University study looking at the spread of certain chemicals found in firefighting foam and other products in groundwater.  (COLIN MULVANY)

Researchers at the Indiana University are offering to foot the water testing bill for private well owners near the site of chemical contamination at Fairchild Air Force Base.

The study, backed by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, is intended to give chemists and government officials a better idea of how per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known by the acronym PFAS, compounds found in firefighting foam used on the base for decades, can infiltrate groundwater.

“Our goal really is to build these, basically, trained machine learning methods to try to predict where around the sites you might find the worst levels of contamination,” said Jacquelin MacDonald Gibson, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupation Health at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, and the study’s lead researcher.

Spokane County was selected because of the exposure at Fairchild, discovered in May 2017. Prolonged exposure to the chemicals, also used in the production of several common household items, have been linked in studies to health problems including high cholesterol, birth complications and some forms of cancer, according to the EPA.

Local public health officials have not ceased studying the movement of the chemicals in groundwater, even as Airway Heights shifted to using Spokane municipal water and several surrounding governments and organizations filed lawsuits alleging negligence from the U.S. Department of Defense. Previous studies have shown contamination levels in wells to the east and northeast of Airway Heights, said Mike LaScuola, an environmental health specialist at Spokane Regional Health District who’s been working on the contamination.

“We were looking at anywhere and anyhow we could get some additional study,” LaScuola said.

Researchers sent notice to about 1,000 private well owners in Spokane County, MacDonald Gibson said. The study will also include well water tests in Minnesota and North Carolina, near the sites of other known PFAS contaminations. A control group will also be collected from Indiana.

The university will send out a water test kit that typically costs about $400, MacDonald Gibson said. The kit tests not just for PFAS, but for 42 other compounds that might be present in the well water.

“For participants, it’s free information,” she said.

It will also help the health district better understand a suite of chemicals that only recently have been identified as potentially dangerous, LaScuola said.

“Right now, we’re just starting,” LaScuola said. “You talk about the tip of an iceberg. We’re just starting to investigate how pervasive this is in our environment.”

Private well users can check their eligibility for the test by visiting a website established by the health district to explain the study. It’s available at cleanwaterforuskids.org/foreverchemicals/register. Those who don’t live within the boundaries of the study may qualify for a discounted test kit through the program.

Those who participate in the study do not need to sign any waivers, MacDonald Gibson said. The lawsuits against the Defense Department and manufacturers of the chemicals that were filed in federal court in Eastern Washington have been compiled into a compendium of cases currently before a federal judge in South Carolina.

LaScuola said the Indiana University study was just the first in planned work to determine where the chemicals are present and their effects on human health. Another study to be conducted by Spokane County Water Resources will follow, with quarterly tests of some private wells to determine how long the chemicals remain in groundwater and their concentrations, he said.

“It’s something that we really do need to eliminate from our drinking water,” LaScuola said. “That way you can go ahead and be assured that all the other things you’re doing to live a long and healthy life will be worthwhile.”

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