Emerging toxics: PFAS in groundwater
By Jamie Pang South, Environmental Health Program Director, and Stacey Dalgaard, Water Outreach Director
What is a “forever chemical”?
Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, are a class of synthetic, man-made chemicals that do not break down in the environment and build up in our blood and organs. This has earned them the name “forever chemicals,” and they have now been found in drinking water or groundwater in 49 states, including Oregon.
When we surveyed several groups in the Portland area about their top water-related toxics concerns, PFAS wasn’t on many people’s radar – or at least didn’t register as a significant concern.
However, OEC’s Environmental Health program tracks emerging toxics issues and promotes policies that can help prevent harmful pollution from becoming a widespread community problem, and this is one to watch. As testing reveals PFAS contamination in drinking water supplies across the country, we want to be sure Oregonians have the background on this issue to protect themselves and advocate for their communities.
Read on for a primer on how PFAS gets in our environment, the health impacts and who is working to address these problems in Oregon.
What are PFAS and where do they come from?
PFAS, PFOA and PFOS are trade names for nonstick and water resistant coatings that lurk in thousands of consumer products ranging from grease-proof food wrappers, nonstick pans, stain-repellent fabrics and waterproof mascara, to firefighting foam used to put out fires at airports, military bases and in our neighborhoods.
These man-made chemicals typically get into our water from firefighting foam and industrial discharge into waterways, but they can also show up in our food, air, dust and wastewater from consumer products we use in our daily lives.
Because they do not break down naturally, PFAS chemicals bioaccumulate in our bodies, rivers, lakes, and soil – building up over time.
How does PFAS affect our health and the environment?
Studies have linked exposure to high levels of PFAS chemicals with:
- Negative effects on growth, learning and behavior in infants and children
- Difficulty getting pregnant and lower infant birth weights
- Weakened immune system and decreased vaccine response
- Weight gain and increased cholesterol levels
- Kidney cancer and testicular cancer
- Hormone and thyroid disruptions
PFAS also harms wildlife and aquatic life. Washington State passed sweeping legislation last year to ban PFAS in consumer products, food packaging and firefighting foam in part due to its impact on resident orcas. Testing in Michigan wildlife also led the state to issue warnings to not eat deer from certain areas.
Chemical manufacturers have known about the harmful effects of PFAS for people and the environment since the 1970s and covered up evidence for decades. Since then, the chemical class has exploded to more than 4,000 individual chemicals, yet continues to be minimally regulated by the federal government.
It is now estimated that PFAS is found in the blood of 99% of Americans, and as far as the Arctic, in polar bears.
Limit your exposure to PFAS:
It can be challenging to avoid chemicals that show up in so many parts of our lives, but there are ways you can limit your exposure:
- Use stainless steel and cast iron cookware instead of Teflon.
- Skip optional stain-repellant treatment on carpets and furniture.
- Eat less fast food and microwave popcorn, because the food wrappers contain PFAS.
- Research your beauty and personal-care products. The Environmental Working Group has a database of 75,000 cosmetics products and the dangerous chemicals in them.
- Install water filters that remove PFAS from drinking water if it’s known that your water is contaminated.
PFAS in Oregon’s waters
PFAS-contaminated groundwater was found at 10 Oregon military sites in 2017, and near Portland Water Bureau’s Columbia South Shore Well Field in NE Portland and Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls in 2019, all sites where firefighting foam has been used frequently. Additionally, 6 industrial sites in Portland and Klamath Falls have been identified as potential sources of PFAS in Oregon.
Although there is currently no evidence that PFAS has made it into drinking water supplies in Oregon, drinking water is one of the most common routes of exposure for PFAS and a priority for Oregon officials.
So far, limited testing has been done in Oregon. A 2013-2015 study of Oregon’s major public drinking water systems undertaken as part of the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Program did not find detectable levels of PFAS chemicals, but there is no ongoing monitoring for PFAS in Oregon’s drinking water systems.
As new research across the country reveals widespread contamination of water systems, soil and air with PFAS chemicals, even showing up in rainwater, it is likely that the number of Americans exposed via tap water has been dramatically underestimated.
Regulating PFAS in water
The EPA was first alerted to the problem of PFAS in drinking water in 2001, but has failed to set an enforceable, nationwide legal limit. In 2016, the EPA issued a non-enforceable lifetime health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). However, the CDC recommends the threshold be 7-10 times lower than the EPA’s “safe” advisory level.
Due to the lack of federal protections, states across the country have stepped up to pass and propose regulations on PFAS. There are currently 26 adopted policies in 12 states regulating PFAS, ranging from regulatory limits on PFAS in drinking water and environmental standards for rivers to restrictions on firefighting foam and food packaging.
Oregon has passed two laws that begin to address PFAS:
- SB 737 (passed 2007): Required DEQ to conduct one-time testing of Oregon’s major wastewater treatment plants for persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals, including 5 PFAS chemicals. If testing shows levels exceed certain levels, a pollution prevention plan is required that is incorporated into the treatment plant’s NPDES wastewater discharge permit.
- SB 478 (Toxic Free Kids Act, passed 2015): Established high priority chemicals of concern for children’s products; requires manufacturers to report these chemicals to the Oregon Health Authority, and requires the eventual phase-out of certain products. PFOS is amongst the list of high priority chemicals, but PFAS as a class, is not.
Nationally, the Pentagon estimates that it would cost $2 billion to clean up water contamination from PFAS just at military bases. The Department of Defense has already spent more than $219,000 on environmental investigations in Klamath Falls and Portland International Airport.
Who’s working on PFAS in Oregon?
In Oregon, DEQ and OHA are tracking information from other states and evaluating the proposed federal actions to determine how they may support Oregon’s needs. Both agencies are also evaluating PFAS toxicity screening values and environmental management approaches that may be appropriate for Oregon. In addition, DEQ, in coordination with other agencies and other states, is also pursuing pollution prevention opportunities that do not require regulatory authority. More information about PFAS in Oregon can be found at DEQ’s website.
Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies (ACWA), which serves Oregon wastewater treatment and stormwater management agencies – the entities that protect public health and the environment by cleaning your wastewater and runoff from our cities and roads – has also been closely tracking this issue. The ACWA PFAS Workgroup is collaborating with DEQ, drinking water providers and other local government partners, and is providing sampling guidance and informational resources to its members as wastewater and biosolids become an increasing area of concern for PFAS nationally.
“PFAS compounds are among many persistent toxins that wastewater treatment plants were never designed to remove. There are no easy treatment solutions to these “forever” chemicals,” says Susie Smith, Executive Director of Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies.
“We need to develop a collective understanding of the sources, uses and locations where PFAS compounds are ending up in the environment, so we can tackle the problem at the source. The collaborative efforts underway among our state environmental and public health agencies and local government water management utilities are key in identifying high priority proactive steps we can take to protect Oregonians’ water and the public’s health.”
As advocates for strong environmental health policy, OEC participates in the Safer States Coalition and is watching for opportunities to influence public policy in Oregon to combat exposure to PFAS chemicals. As the regulatory landscape starts to change, OEC sees several ways our policymakers can address PFAS:
- Oregon’s Congressional delegation must advocate for the designation of this harmful class of chemicals as a “hazardous substance” under CERCLA, the federal Superfund law.
- The Oregon legislature should commit funding to DEQ and OHA for PFAS monitoring of drinking water systems, priority mapping of contamination areas, and overseeing cleanup efforts.
- All of Oregon’s agencies should commit to banning or reducing the procurement of PFAS products in state purchasing and procurement contracts.
- The Oregon legislature can adopt PFAS-related legislation, such as phasing out of PFAS-based firefighting foam in training activities.
The Oregon Toxic Free Kids Act is currently one of our best regulatory tools for managing PFOS in products in our homes, but PFAS as a class of chemicals does not fall under this process. OEC’s advocacy in Salem helped to pass this landmark consumer safety and children’s health law, and we are currently exploring ways to strengthen the law to cover more chemicals and products that show up in our daily lives.
As we’ve seen in other states, there may be opportunities to more directly address PFAS sources in Oregon, and OEC will continue to work closely with Safer States and partners here in Oregon to identify smart solutions to protect our health and environment.
The next blog in our Toxics in Water series looks at how a toxic algae outbreak in Salem and Woodburn demonstrated why culturally and linguistically appropriate emergency response systems are needed to keep Oregonians safe. Stay with us as we explore other toxics in water issues affecting our families and neighbors across the state.
Sign up for OEC’s Action Alert Network to stay on top of the latest PFAS actions and other opportunities to tell lawmakers you care about Oregon’s health and environment.
Share your PFAS questions in the comments below!
OEC’s Toxics in Water outreach and blog series was generously funded by the Doll Family Foundation.