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CDC study shows Airway Heights residents near contamination have high levels of chemicals in blood, urine

The Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights in May 2017. A 2019 study of 333 residents near contaminated areas found levels of chemicals several dozen times above the national average.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)
The Airway Heights Public Work Department flushes potentially contaminated water from a fire hydrant into Aspen Grove Park in Airway Heights in May 2017. A 2019 study of 333 residents near contaminated areas found levels of chemicals several dozen times above the national average. (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

A federal study of Airway Heights residents exposed to tainted groundwater shows levels of harmful chemicals dozens of times greater than the national average, which the city says highlights a need for a new permanent water source.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last week includes the results of blood and urine tests for 333 residents on the West Plains living near Fairchild Air Force Base, where a 2017 investigation revealed high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the water table. The chemicals, found in firefighting foam that was used on the base for decades in exercises, are believed to have leached into the groundwater, contaminating both private and public wells.

Researchers tested for several substances in the category of chemicals, including one that tested 56 times greater in the bodies of study participants than the general population. The study found higher levels of the chemicals in residents who had lived in the area the longest and who reported mainly drinking tap water, indicating groundwater contamination was the likeliest source of the chemicals in blood and urine samples.

Albert Tripp, city administrator in Airway Heights, said the results of the test showed that the extraordinary measure of switching from the city’s wells to buying water wholesale from Spokane immediately after the contamination was necessary. The report found that current tap water supplies are safe.

“When we made this call to make the switch from the existing water supply to a temporary one, the takeaway is I think we did the right thing,” Tripp said.

The CDC notes that the findings only provide a level of contamination, and it’s not yet known the extent of the chemicals’ effect on individual health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to issue a new drinking water regulation by fall 2023.

“The body of science about PFAS exposure and health effects is growing rapidly,” the report states. “Some, but not all, scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain PFAS may be linked to harmful health effects.”

That includes links to certain types of cancer, liver disease, reduced birth weight and more.

The report’s release coincides with a new, revised request from the city of Airway Heights to drill a new well over the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. Doing so would provide a reliable, healthy and cost-effective source of water for residents who are depending on water from Spokane, Tripp said.

“This particular report underscores the need around developing those replacement wells to continue protecting public health and safety,” Tripp said.

The city has received funding assistance from both the Washington Legislature and, most recently, Congress in assisting the establishment of a replacement water source.

Airway Heights has filed an application under what is known as a mitigated water right, meaning it would have to show that any water it takes out of the Spokane aquifer would be offset by a reduced demand on water elsewhere in areas that improve water flow in the Spokane River.

The request is for the same amount of water as requested in a previous application. The new request clarifies where the recharging water will come from and is intended to address concerns from other users of the system and river advocates, Tripp said.

“We sought to provide more clarity around the project,” he said.

But those concerns continue, even with the additional information provided by Airway Heights, said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.

“Mostly we just want more information,” he said.

That includes whether the water that will recharge the aquifer will be free of any contamination, Beggs said.

A formal letter sent by the city of Spokane to Airway Heights requests a rigorous review of the application, including the effect of climate change on the future demand for river water.

“We anticipate continued partnering in an effort to effectively and efficiently address Airway Heights’ water needs,” the letter, signed Thursday, reads. “However, based on the documents submitted … there needs to be a more comprehensive evaluation.”

Jerry White Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper, said his organization continues to have concerns about wells in the aquifer and how they would affect legally mandated flow levels in the Spokane River.

“We remain skeptical that the proposed mitigation is actually that,” White said.

He said for the health of the river, filtration methods and conservation measures to increase efficiency of the water that’s drawn from the aquifer, should be considered.

The report also includes recommendations for study participants who had elevated levels of PFAS, Tripp said. The suggestions include private well owners seeking PFAS testing, sharing test results with physicians and paying attention to the city’s water quality reports. The CDC says breastfeeding mothers should continue to do so, and that those who had their blood and urine tested don’t need additional tests in the near future because of the long half-life of the chemicals.

A public, virtual meeting is planned for Wednesday at 6 p.m., when CDC officials will brief the community on their findings. To attend, participants need to register online at https://bit.ly/SpokaneEAMtg.

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