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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I’ve been drinking poison for 30 years’: West Plains residents reckon with slow-moving PFAS cleanup

Chuck Danner who lives on the West Plains and recently found out he has high levels of PFAS in his blood, poses for a photo with a glass of water from his home tap on Thursday in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Chuck Danner has stopped drinking water from his private well out in the country on the outskirts of Spokane.

Danner is one of many residents on the West Plains who have been exposed to dangerously high levels of PFAS chemicals. He had thought his 400 foot deep well would have kept him safe from PFAS-contaminated firefighting foam found at the Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base. But a recent blood test found PFAS levels in Danner almost twice the upper limit of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes is safe.

“My emotions have been on a roller coaster for the last couple of months. Anger. Disappointment. Verging on heartbreak,” Danner said in a mid-December interview. “I’ve been drinking poison for 30 years and there’s nothing going to be done about it anytime soon.”

It’s not a new problem. The city of Airway Heights took its PFAS-contaminated wells out of commission in 2017 when the firefighting foam contamination was discovered. Six years later, the contamination on the base and airport is just beginning to be remedied and the thousands on West Plains exposed to the toxic chemical have few answers.

Cleanup on Fairchild will take an undetermined amount of time and contamination stemming from Spokane International Airport could take up to 12 years to clean up.

What is PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of over 10,000 human-made chemicals developed in the 1930s or 1940s. Because they are long lasting and resistant to being broken down in water, oil and fire, PFAS chemicals were mass produced and used in products ubiquitous from midcentury America to today.

“It grew exponentially. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of manufactured products had it, because it’s very strong, resistant to heat and in some ways resistant to time,” said Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Francisco Velázquez at a recent community meeting in Airway Heights.

Dubbed “forever chemicals,” depending upon their forms, PFAS can take decades to dissipate in the environment or to metabolize out of the body. Because of the chemicals’ widespread use lasting even until today in many cases, most people in the United States and around the world have some level of PFAS circulating in their body.

According to Department of Ecology cleanup site manager Jeremy Schmidt, over 80% of people in the United States have a moderate blood level of PFAS in their body, 2% would have a low amount and 11% would have high levels.

That amount of exposure is troubling because PFAS have increasingly been linked to disease, though the long-term effects of exposure are far from certain.

The substances have been designated as “emerging contaminants” by the Environmental Protection Agency and the agency has proposed a new rule classifying two specific forms of PFAS as “hazardous substances. If approved, entities would be required to immediately report if the substances reach above a certain threshold.

“Based on the new data and EPA’s draft analyses, the levels at which negative health effects could occur are much lower than previously understood,” reads the proposed rule.

Negative health effects listed by the EPA include the following:

  • Cancer, especially kidney or testicular cancer.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Liver disease.
  • Decreased response to vaccines.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Thyroid disorders.
  • Decreased infant birth weight.

At a recent meeting of the West Plains Water Coalition, an advocacy group recently formed by residents affected by the exposure, medical experts warned that the effects of PFAS are not well known and any individual medical issue in a patient cannot yet be linked to their PFAS exposure.

“Conversations about this issue are frustrating because we all want precise, clear answers that make sense. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information to have that certainty,” said University of Washington professor and epidemiologist Catherine Karr.

“I’m not going to tell you if any past present or future health conditions are due to your level of exposure. There’s a lot of unknowns around it,” said Velázquez – who recommended concerned residents speak to their primary care physicians about their possible exposure.

“My advice to you is to be persistent and talk to your providers. Make sure that they know what the issues are and where you live and what your concern is. And knowing providers – providers are always going to try to help you,” he said.

Should you get a blood test if you think you’ve been exposed?

Several West Plains residents at the meeting expressed frustration that their doctors knew little about PFAS and were reticent to order a blood test to determine their PFAS levels.

Retired Airway Heights Fire Chief Nick Scharff said even after his well tested at high levels of PFAS, his doctor refused to order a blood test.

“He sends me a little email telling me its nothing to be worried about,” Scharff said at the meeting. “He just blew me off.”

Danner was able to receive a blood test but said his doctor was equally uninformed about PFAS and its effects on his health.

In statements, Spokane’s two major hospital systems expressed the need for providers to be educated on the chemical.

“Our providers in Airway Heights are familiar with PFAS since it originally presented itself in 2017. They have educational documents from the CDC to keep them up to date with the latest information to share with their patients,” said MultiCare spokesperson Kevin Maloney. “Severe cases are typically referred to oncology specialists but usually those conversations start with a primary care provider, like our team at MultiCare Rockwood Clinic in Airway Heights.”

Providence spokesperson Ariana Barrey said in a statement that the health care provider “understands the importance of staying informed about the latest health issues that impact the well-being of our community.”

“As part of our commitment to education and training, we provide our providers with ongoing resources to help them stay up to date on emerging health concerns,” she said.

At the Water Coalition meeting, Karr suggested providers may be reluctant to order a blood test because there is not much a doctor can do with the information right now.

“We learned in medical school – don’t order a test that you don’t know what to do with,” she said.

“A lot of health care providers, they just don’t know. And so they’re not comfortable. And so we really need to get them to be comfortable,” she said.

While not much can be done now, receiving a blood test can provide a baseline, which can be useful as medicine on this subject evolves, Karr said.

“It will be helpful to know what your level is now as we accumulate that information,” she said. “The downside is no one – not even the most expert person – can say what the likelihood is of getting a certain disease.”

After getting the test in November, Danner recently found out his levels are especially high compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Because of the ambiguity present in PFAS research, he does not know what that means for his health.

Danner has a liver condition. He has high cholesterol. His daughter, who drank water from that well for 15 years early in her life, now has a thyroid condition. Danner does not know if these conditions have any connection to PFAS exposure.

“They’re affecting people’s lives. People are dying and getting cancer. People are experiencing so much,” he said of people living on the West Plains.

Cleanup is still years away

While the health impacts of PFAS are being debated, those living on the West Plains still are being exposed to water contaminated by the airports’ firefighting foam. Though Airway Heights ended use of the impacted wells years ago, those impacted in rural Spokane County often do not have that option with their private well.

Even though he has high levels of PFAS in his blood, Danner has not gotten his well tested. He does not think he should be the one to pay for it. In the meantime he has stopped drinking water from his well and has installed a water dispenser as a stopgap.

“I’m paying for it out of my pocket. I don’t think I should have to. I didn’t put those chemicals in my well. They did,” he said.

Of the 16 PFAS for which Danner was tested, among the highest levels of PFAS in his system were those most associated with the firefighting foam.

“Seeing that, there wasn’t much question in my mind at that point that my well is contaminated and contaminated by that foam,” he said.

Danner reached out to the Fairchild Air Force Base and asked them to test his well. They refused. Danner’s home is too far east. According to the Fairchild, contamination of their foam only got in the groundwater of homes west of Hayford Road. They pointed him toward the Department of Ecology, which is overseeing the cleanup at Spokane International Airport.

Air Force officials have approved providing private well testing within a specified area they believe contamination may be from Fairchild. A map of the area is available at and those interested in having their well tested by Fairchild can call (509) 247-5705.

The EPA is currently working with the Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Health and the Spokane Regional Health District to address “private well concerns outside of the Fairchild AFB study area,” according to a statement.

According to the EPA, the base has not begun cleanup.

“After the Remedial Investigation the Air Force and the EPA will agree to a Record of Decision for the chosen remedy. An estimated timeline for cleanup will be developed as part of the Record of Decision,” said EPA Region 10 spokesperson Bill Dunbar.

A separate cleanup process will occur at Spokane International Airport, which is being overseen by the Washington Department of Ecology. According to Schmidt at the Water Coalition meeting, the process mandated by state law is “irritatingly long.” Over 180 different cleanup sites, the entire process from beginning to end takes an average of 12 years.

The Spokane International Airport site is still in the beginning stages, though “significant work can happen” before the process is complete.

“Ecology is committed to moving the site forward as quickly as we possibly can,” Schmidt said.

Danner does not know what another 12 years of exposure will do to him.

“Nothing is going to be done about my contaminated well for 12 years? Or whenever they get around to compensating me or doing whatever they are going to do,” he said. “Many people have it in their blood and it’s not going away.”