Facing Main

What are We Drinking?

Correcting this situation will be costly, involve different levels of government, and require a lot of funding

By Maggie Doherty

Earlier this winter, thanks to the work of local and statewide newspapers, we learned that some of Kalispell’s municipal water supply is contaminated by PFAs, a class of manmade “forever chemicals” that have detrimental impacts on health. The Public Works Department detected that two of the city’s 11 wells contained above health advisory levels of PFAs. PFAs are considered forever chemicals because they disappear or break down. They’re found in a wide range of industrial and consumer products, such as waterproof rain jackets, non-stick frying pans, and firefighting foam.

The city issued a consumer drinking water notice at the end of February and is developing a plan to address the situation, which includes continued monitoring and testing of all wells, potentially adopting the Environment Protection Agency’s drinking water regulations targeting PFAs, and developing an action plan for new wells. The City of Kalispell has created a page on its website to explain what’s happened with the testing results and what people can do to mitigate risk from exposure.

The EPA has reported that PFAs may cause birth defects, cancer and thyroid issues and other health complications. Bare minimum: These are chemicals that we don’t want to drink. The city’s website gives a helpful overview of what PFAs are and where they are found beyond the water faucet. However, I find their recommendation to consumers lacking specific details and actionable steps. If you visit the website, you’ll find yourself redirected to the EPA so be prepared to click on a lot of links.

With PFAs, limiting exposure is a critical step. We know now that some of Kalispell’s water supply is contaminated and it’s worth calling the Public Works Department to see if you are affected by this or not. To reduce exposure the EPA and Kalispell Public Works are suggesting using water filters for your drinking supply. I’ve learned that not all water filters eliminate PFAs equally and the EPA and other water safety organizations highlight that the most effective filter is an under-sink reverse osmosis system. While they are the most effective, RO systems are also expensive. Point-of-use filters, like the filtered water jugs made by brands like Brita use a carbon filter system which helps but isn’t as effective. It’s also important to regularly change the carbon filters and follow a strict maintenance schedule. A short-term solution is to use bottled water, but this can be a pricy option and can cause a lot of waste.

Research shows that bathing, showering and washing dishes in PFA-contaminated water is unlikely to pose a significant health risk. 

Correcting this situation will be costly, involve different levels of government, and require a lot of funding. Across the country, from the devastating collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore to the ongoing crisis of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, we’re witnessing a failure in infrastructure that’s supposed to keep us safe and healthy. Now’s the time to ensure that we have experts in their field addressing this problem and we’re electing leaders who will secure funding for new well sites, assist consumers with access to cleaning drinking water, and prevent future contaminations. 

As the public, we also have a role to play. Stay engaged, stay involved, and keep asking our officials: What are we drinking?