An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some West Plains residents want their wells tested for PFAS

Courtesy Environmental Protection Agency
This graphic shows the pathway for PFAS into groundwater sources.

People outside Fairchild's contamination zone think their water may be tainted by the chemicals once used for firefighting at the air force base.

Some residents of Spokane’s West Plains hope they can get help to determine if toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used at Fairchild Air Force Base might be contaminating their wells.

Research shows the chemicals known as PFAS are believed to cause a variety of health issues, including kidney cancer, low birth weight, immune system problems, and higher serum cholesterol levels.

Airway Heights municipal wells were shut down six years ago, when PFAS chemicals were detected in groundwater. Since then, city water has been piped in from Spokane.

The human threat posed by the contamination concerns Washington Department of Health toxicologist Barbara Morrissey. She says results from a national blood sample survey by the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry from eight communities nationwide, including Airway Heights, found some surprising results.

“The average levels for one PFAS, which is called PFHXS, was higher in that community than any of the other eight communities,” Morrissey said.

So far a quarter of the 450 wells that have been tested within an official contamination zone have shown PFAS above the 70-parts-per-trillion threshold considered unsafe.

The U.S. Air Force is paying for water testing within the contamination zone and for special filtration systems for those affected homeowners. But some living just outside the zone that worry their wells may also be contaminated.

John Hancock from the advisory group West Plains Water Coalition says many people outside that zone cannot afford to pay for the testing, much less the filtration system.

“The stance of the West Plains Water Coalition is that none of these individual well owners caused their own problem. And there may be 1000 individual problems, a thousand wells on the West Plains,” he said. “The purpose of government is to do big things and to fix big problems and the fact the source of the problem is the Department of Defense seems obvious.”

Barbara Morrissey says the state Department of Health is figuring out who has the authority and resources to help those homeowners.

The Air Force didn’t comment on the issue because it faces a nationwide lawsuit over PFAS contamination at a number of bases. That suit will be heard next month.