Toxics Lurking in Our Water

Do you ever wonder what’s in your water?

The water in our rivers and groundwater isn’t pure H2O. Every water source has different minerals and compounds. Many are harmless or even healthful, but others can be toxic to humans or aquatic life.

Some harmful toxics are naturally occurring, like bacteria, arsenic and algae. Some aren’t supposed to be in the river but get washed off our streets and farms, like brake fluid, mercury, fertilizers and pesticides. And some are man-made synthetic chemicals that are leaching into our water sources, like PFAS, or debris coming off our clothes, like microplastics.

There are multiple ways to think about how we are exposed to toxics in water. For many, the first thing that comes to mind is the water we drink. But we can also be exposed to harmful substances when we’re swimming or playing in rivers and lakes, by eating fish that have absorbed toxics into their meat tissue, and when flooding washes chemicals from garages or industrial facilities into streets and waterways.

Toxics in Water - Exposure Pathways graphic

As the connection between exposure to toxic chemicals and COVID-19 becomes clear, it is undeniable that we must reduce the chemical burdens that lower immunity and harm public health. This is particularly true for low-income, Black, Indigenous and Communities of Color across the country, who are disproportionately exposed to more toxic chemicals in their surrounding environment while lacking access to safe, healthy water.

How do we know where to start tackling these challenges? Thanks to a generous grant from the Doll Family Foundation, which has long supported OEC’s Environmental Health Program, we started exploring some of these topics by surveying a small group of culturally-specific and community-based organizations in the Portland Metro area to get a sense of which issues are priority concerns for our neighbors.

The water that comes out of our faucets and toxics in fish and other resources harvested from local waterways were the top two concerns among people we heard from in the Portland area, followed by how toxic chemicals affect wildlife and healthy ecosystems.

Toxics in Water - Top Concerns graphic

Top drinking water concerns were lead, pesticides and herbicides, harmful algae blooms, and other waterborne pathogens (e.g. fecal coliform bacteria, giardia).

Link to Fox12Oregon article

Fox12 Oregon: 3 years later, Portland Public Schools still grappling with lead in drinking water

This parallels the recent issues of lead in Portland Public Schools, an algae outbreak that put Salem and Woodburn water customers on alert for more than a month in 2018, and Portland’s investments in the Big Pipe project that have all gained significant attention in the media and among community groups.

When it comes to fish and other edible river species, mercury and other heavy metals and legacy pollutants top the list of concerns. Mercury and PCBs are found in resident fish throughout the Willamette River, and Oregon Health Authority issues guidance on limiting how much of these fish to eat.

However, some people depend on local fish and clams for food, and others may not have access to this public health information, whether because of language or technology barriers.

Addressing the root cause of this pollution is the only way to protect everyone.

We also heard concerns about microplastics, PBT chemicals in consumer products and landfills, more equitable superfund and brownfield cleanups with higher standards set by local communities, concerns over how federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) risk evaluations are conducted, and the need for culturally and linguistically relevant information for people impacted by water emergencies.

Most importantly, people want to know why these issues are happening, who regulates them and policy opportunities to address the problem, how it affects health, and how to harness people’s real-life experiences and stories to build power of the community.

In this Toxics in Water blog series, we attempt to unpack a few of these topics and offer a primer on the causes, health impacts, who regulates them and who is working to solve them. We start with 3 drinking water challenges: two of which are priorities for those people we surveyed, and one emerging issue with less awareness in Oregon. Check them out here:

Toxics in Water Blog Series:
Lead in Oregon’s water
Emerging toxics: PFAS in groundwater
Toxic algae and access to emergency info
Link here
Link here
Coming soon!

OEC has a long history of working on water policy and toxics policy. Our Clean & Plentiful Water Program helped establish the Pesticides Stewardship Partnership program that is part of the state’s Toxics Reduction Strategy and served on the Willamette Basin Mercury TMDL Advisory Committee. Our toxics advocacy in Salem helped pass Oregon’s landmark consumer safety and children’s health law, the Toxic Free Kids Act, requiring the reporting and phasing out of key chemicals in products targeted to children.

Image from NBC News of community distributing bottled water

NBC News: Unsafe water more prevalent in communities of color, study finds

But there is much more work to do, particularly to understand the racial and social inequities around toxics and water policy specific to Oregon, and to fulfill the core environmental justice principle of ensuring meaningful public participation in decisions that affect the environment in which people live, work, learn, practice spirituality and play.

This is part of our work to better understand what water justice looks like here in Oregon. OEC’s water outreach program is partnering with community-based organizations around the state to support grassroots capacity to advocate for clean water and community priorities.

Now head over to the first of our Toxics in Water blog series to get a primer on lead in Oregon’s water.


OEC’s Toxics in Water outreach and blog series was generously funded by the Doll Family Foundation.

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