Monday, May 22, 2017

Chemical contamination from Fairchild now affecting thousands

Posted By on Mon, May 22, 2017 at 3:29 PM

click to enlarge Chemical contamination from Fairchild now affecting thousands
Young Kwak photo
Julie Dibble wants to know why the Air Force isn't testing this creek, which runs from the base through her and her neighbors' properties. The Air Force says it is focusing on testing sources of human drinking water for now. The creek is a drinking source for cattle, and children often play and run through it during the hot summer months.


Local and state officials, as well as officials from Fairchild, will hold a town hall on Tuesday, May 23 at 6 pm in the Medical Lake High School auditorium to present more information on the compounds involved in this contamination, and address questions and concerns.

Last week, the Inlander spoke with some of the first residents whose wells tested high for chemical contamination from Fairchild Air Force Base, and heard about their health fears, concerns about continuing to give well water to their livestock, and worries about what this means for the future of their properties.

One woman had scheduled a doctor's appointment to check for thyroid issues. Another worried about what type of water filter or treatment might be available — they're all using bottled water being provided by the Air Force to cook and clean, and probably will have to do so for months. A couple wanted to know if they should use their well water on their vegetable garden — would these chemicals work their way into the food? Others were giving their chickens bottled water, or throwing away the eggs.

On Tuesday, the Air Force announced that Airway Heights' water, serving more than 8,500 people, also had tested high for the chemicals. Firefighters started handing out bottled water to residents that night, with cars lining up first thing the next morning as distribution continued.

The chemicals involved, commonly referred to by the abbreviations PFOA and PFOS, were used in firefighting foam on the base for more than 40 years, from 1970 until last year.

They have a tendency to stick around in the environment and in the body, and most people have some level of the chemicals in their blood, because they've been used for a variety of commercial products, from Teflon cookware, to carpets, clothing, and food packaging — things that need to be resistant to water, grease or stains — according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

While more study is needed to be sure what impacts the chemicals have on human health, they've been linked with lower birth weight and possible birth defects, increased risk for cancer, hormone changes, decreased fertility, higher cholesterol and more, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Both chemical compounds have been studied for decades. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a short-term health advisory, saying that drinking water should not contain more than 400 parts per trillion of PFOA or 200 parts per trillion of PFOS.

That number was reduced last year, when the EPA issued a lifetime health advisory level for the chemicals, warning that there shouldn't be more than a combined 70 parts per trillion of either in drinking water.

The military has tested for chemical compounds at and around different bases over the past few years, but testing at Fairchild didn't start until this year.

Residents the Inlander spoke with say their preliminary results (all in parts per trillion) varied: some tested at 226, 440, 940 and 5,700.

The early results seem to be all over the place, Thorpe Road resident Julie Dibble says.

"One neighbor's tested at only 26. The one right next to her was nearly 4,000," she says.

The Air Force would not provide a list of the results, a high, low or a median, "out of respect for the privacy of well owners."

Last week, Airway Heights City Council members were told that their wells tested between 1,400 and 1,500 parts per trillion. The city is flushing its system with water from Spokane right now, and plans to retest its wells this week.

Correctional Industries' Airway Heights Food Operations issued a recall of more than 300,000 pounds of frozen food produced with the contaminated water.

While Airway Heights' water system is already connected to Spokane water, and could theoretically use that source (for a cost), the residents who rely on their wells southeast of the base are waiting to hear what the Air Force plans to do to treat their water in the long term.


Some water treatment plants use activated carbon to filter out these chemical compounds, but it's not clear if that would work well when scaled down for smaller, individual systems.

Richard Watts, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University, is an expert on treating contamination at the source with oxidation processes, which his lab has studied for more than 30 years.

He says using activated carbon likely isn't a very effective method to clean the water at individual wells.

"The point-of-use systems like Pur water filters that people put on their taps — those don't work that well for PFOA and PFOS, because they have a negative charge on them," Watts says. "It's really a pain in the butt, in terms of a chemical to get out of water."

For say, a pesticide, or a chemical that is fairly water soluble, that would stick to the activated carbon very well, he says.

"But PFOA and PFOS, they will stick, but not very effectively," Watts says.

Watts, one of the first to study oxidation processes for cleanups, thinks that oxidation has the potential to work as a treatment for the chemicals.

"It would not be that hard to implement," he says. "A lot of specialty companies do this type of thing."

In 2014, his lab published a study that showed hydrogen peroxide — what you use to clean your cuts, only much more concentrated — mixed with a catalyst, broke down most of the PFOA in the water in just a few hours, removing all of the fluorine molecules from the chemical compound.

However, that process hasn't been tested in the field for PFOA or PFOS yet, so additional research is needed before it would be clear if that's a good option.

Another potential concern? Dealing with concentrated hydrogen peroxide can be dangerous.

"One of the downsides with it is you work with big drums of concentrated hydrogen peroxide," says Amy Teel, an associate research professor who works with Watts. "Those have a potential explosive fire hazard."

However, a good thing about hydrogen peroxide is that it very quickly breaks down, leaving behind only oxygen and water, Teel says.

Other byproducts would depend on the type of catalyst used and the chemicals in the soil.

The bigger challenge to study is whether it would be feasible to get the hydrogen peroxide to the contamination before it breaks down.

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...