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Airway Heights water crisis: City says water still unsafe; What you need to know

Posted: Updated:
AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. -

UPDATE May 26, 2017: 

The City of Airway Heights says as of Friday afternoon, the water is still unsafe to drink. 

Officials received the test results from the Anatek laboratory in Moscow, Idaho and says out of 17 samples taken throughout the system, 11 of them came back as either "Non-detect" or below EPA levels. However, 6 samples came back with with high PPT levels ranging from 82-857 PPT. 

"The good news is that the flushing is working," said Kevin Anderson, Public Works Director. "Unfortunately, we need to perform more of it over the holiday."

The city will resume flushing the system this weekend at various locations and samples will be collected early next week with results hopefully available by the end of the week. 

Until the advisory is lifted, citizens should not drink city water or use it for cooking. Bathing, doing laundry and washing dishes is ok. 

In partnership with Fairchild Air Force Base, Airway Heights will continue to provide bottled water at the distribution site behind Yokes. Citizens that are homebound can all the Airway Heights Fire Department at 509-244-3322 or the Airway Heights Police Department at 509-244-3707 and request a delivery during the weekend. 

Previous Coverage: 

What’s wrong with the water around Fairchild Air Force Base, are people getting sick from it, and could my tap be contaminated too?

Those are just a few of the many questions people are asking as this emergency continues to unfold around the base and the Airway Heights community. KHQ has put together this guide to gather information that’s publicly available right now, and give you a comprehensive list of resources you can use to stay informed.

Q: What’s in the water?

A: An unknown quantity of highly fluorinated compounds, otherwise known as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) - specifically perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA). These compounds came from the foam used by Fairchild Air Force Base for decades to fight fires and in practice drills.

These chemicals basically never break down, and once they get into the environment, they accumulate. And that’s what happened at Fairchild. The chemicals seeped into the groundwater and remained there.

Q: What happens when PFOS or PFOA gets into our bodies?

A: The EPA says these chemicals present potential cancer risks, in cases of chronic exposure, and are shown to have a number of other adverse effects in laboratory animals and humans, including:
            * changes in cholesterol,
            * liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), and
            * thyroid effects.

Chronic exposure to PFOA has been shown to lead to the development of testicular, pancreatic, and liver cancers in animals. Chronic exposure to PFOS has been shown to lead to liver tumors in animals.

A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that adolescents in the Faroe Islands who had higher levels of these chemicals in their blood were less responsive to vaccines and got sick more often.

Another paper in the journal Reproductive Toxicology found that these compounds may also interfere with a woman’s ability to breast-feed.

Q: What areas are they testing for contamination?

A: So far, the areas being tested are south and east of Fairchild AFB. This includes private water supplies and some of the wells that supply drinking water to the city of Airway Heights.

Q: How many people been drinking contaminated water, and for how long?

A: Unknown. Water testing of private wells around Fairchild AFB began only in the last few months, before expanding to include the municipal supply servicing a large area of Airway Heights. But the Air Force has been aware of the potential threat posed by these chemicals for decades.

An in-depth investigation last year by the Colorado Springs Gazette, showed the Air Force ignored warnings from its own researchers - dating back to 1979 - in continuing to use the chemical-laden firefighting foam.

So far, water contamination has been found near approx. 30 military bases in 16 states, including Fairchild AFB and Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington, and Mountain Home AFB in Idaho.

Q: What’s being done by Fairchild AFB to address the problem, and how is Airway Heights responding?

A: Airway Heights City Council met May 16th to declare an emergency regarding the water supply. Residents and businesses west of Hayford Road were advised not to drink their tap water - a situation that could last up to 10 days, before the all-clear is given. You can check the Airway Heights water quality page for more updated information.

Fairchild, meanwhile, has participated in the distribution of bottled water to residents, pledged to work with the community to provide a long-term filtration solution, and - in the name of transparency - continues to provide updated information on the internet, documenting its efforts to track and address the water contamination problem.

The U.S. Air Force discontinued the use of the problem foam at its bases (including Fairchild) back in 2016, replacing it with an alternative substance that doesn’t use PFASs to suppress fire.

But as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last spring, nearly 400 military bases must be tested for drinking water contamination - a process that will take years to complete. And despite more than $150 million spent on the effort so far, the process has been slow and seemingly disjointed. The branches and the Pentagon have limited information about remediation timelines and cost.

Other coverage:

West Plains property owner learns chemicals contaminated water

Airway Heights residents west of Hayford road advised not to drink city water due to possible contamination

Scramble for water in Airway Heights

Airway Heights water: City manager says it could be 10 days till 'all clear' given

Restaurants close due to water contamination in Airway Heights

6 Questions with Col. Ryan Samuelson of Fairchild AFB

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