During the next two years, health officials will test 127 drinking water systems in Oregon for 29 different “forever chemicals” and lithium under new guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
These chemicals are known or suspected by the EPA to be harmful when consumed at high levels or over long periods. The federal agency has demanded that water systems nationwide serving 3,300 or more people test for the contaminants several times between 2023 and 2025, but the agency has not adopted regulations or guidance on what to do about the findings, especially if they turn up in concentrations that can cause severe disease in adults and children.
That leaves the Oregon Health Authority in charge of overseeing the tests but in a regulatory vacuum in terms of protecting the public. The state has set thresholds for four PFAS and issues health advisories if high, but lacks the regulatory authority to enforce penalties or dictate action until the EPA sets its regulations.
Officials have alerted city water managers when their test results show detectable levels of contamination. In Molalla, where a forever chemical was recently detected, and Umatilla, where lithium was recently detected, health officials wrote to city public works managers to let them know about the results without offering any solutions, said Kari Salis, a drinking water manager at the health authority.
The agency, along with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, has since 2021 undertaken water testing in areas suspected to be near or on sites contaminated with the chemicals. Just one of the 140 sites tested in 2021 — a small water system serving a mobile home park in Albany — had levels of PFAS high enough to prompt the health authority to pressure the water system operators to alert residents. Overall, Oregon does not have the same issues with the chemicals that some other states do, Salis said.
“The chemicals are concerning. Our bodies have adverse impacts even at low levels,” Salis told the Capital Chronicle following the 2021 testing. “We’re lucky so far that it appears it is not a big issue in Oregon.”
Linked to disease
Per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, are known as forever chemicals because they can stay in humans and the environment for decades. Some PFAS have been shown to cause cancer of the kidneys, testicles, prostate and liver, and impair the immune system and child development, according to studies by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Many of the more than 9,000 known PFAS have never been studied, according to the institute.
All of them are human-made and have been put into consumer and industrial products such as nonstick pans and flame retardants. They do not break down or go away naturally but instead have leached into rivers and streams, contaminating the water supply and eventually ending up in people.
Nearly everyone in the U.S. is thought to have some PFAS in their blood, according to research and testing from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials know less about the sources of lithium, found in some soils and minerals, in Oregon and its effect on drinking water. Chronic exposure to high doses of lithium can disrupt the function of the thyroid gland, leading to weight gain, fatigue and joint and muscle pain, according to the Oregon Health Authority, but it’s unclear what effect low levels would have if consumed over long periods.
In Oregon, PFAS are a legacy contaminant, Salis said. The chemicals aren’t being added or spilled into the environment from new sources, but continue to exist in areas, primarily where lots of firefighting foam was used.
Salis said if unsafe levels of PFAS are discovered in any drinking water systems, the options for cities are to find a new source for water or to treat the water using activated carbon that can draw out some contaminants.
The EPA mandate
The health authority has a team of toxicologists and environmental health specialists collaborating on PFAS issues in the state, according to Jonathan Modie, an agency spokesperson.
So far, officials have collected tests from 30 systems and reported the results to the EPA as directed. Most found no detectable levels of the contaminants but some have found the chemicals.
In Molala, a forever chemical called 6:2 FTS was detected. Salis said they sent a letter to the city officials that advised: “You may want to notify your public, but we also don’t really know what it means.”
“That’s generally not a great message for the public, right?” Sails said. “But it’s just the truth of it, too. We don’t know what it means. So we wouldn’t push very hard for a public notice in that case, because we have no action for the consumer and we have no concern to express.”
Three facilities providing water to the city of Umatilla had detectable levels of lithium but officials don’t know what to do about that. “We don’t know if we’re concerned or not,” Salis said.
Scott Coleman, public works director for Umatilla, said he’s waiting for guidance from the EPA and the state.
“We’re in a holding pattern until they can define a tolerable level for us,” Coleman said. “We don’t have a lot of information to go on with the lithium because it’s such a new thing.”
Coleman said he didn’t know where the lithium was coming from, but that it could be a short-lived problem if it is one since the city is looking at a new water source. He’s pursuing a new pump station to draw water from the Columbia River for city customers by 2030, rather than from the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Area where it’s currently sourced.
Use in firefighting foam
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Defense identified 700 former or current military sites across the U.S., including five in Oregon, where the agency asked state regulators to investigate possible PFAS contamination atop aquifers that supply drinking water to the public.
Those sites include the Kingsley Field Air National Guard airport in Klamath Falls, the Portland International Airport, McNary Field in Salem, the Camp Rilea Armed Forces Training Center in Salem and military training centers at the Umatilla Depot in northeast Oregon. The Oregon Health Authority found none was at risk of causing contamination to any public water system, Modie said.
Jared Hayes, a policy advisor at the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said the federal defense department is one of the biggest sources of PFAS contamination in the U.S. due in large part to the firefighting foam that’s been used on military sites for decades.
“They’ve known of the dangers and known it’s been toxic but didn’t tell service members until 2007,” Hayes said.
In 2020, the department released a report citing its missteps in remediating PFAS and withholding critical warnings to service members.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum in May sued 21 organizations – including multinational companies DuPont and 3M – alleging their firefighting foam and everyday nonstick and waterproofing products have been responsible for public health and environmental contamination in the state. Such products, added to food packaging, pans, clothes and carpeting, contain PFAS. The lawsuit alleges the companies are responsible for PFAS contamination at the Portland International Airport and the Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base.
Oregon Capital Chronicle
Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: email@example.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.