Money approved by Congress will help Oregon’s small and low-income communities test and treat drinking water for toxic chemicals known collectively as PFAS, some of which can cause cancer at even low levels. 

Limited testing by the Oregon Health Authority has shown that PFAS contamination in drinking water is not as big of an issue in Oregon as in other states, but the agency has advised people to limit consumption of fish from parts of the Columbia River Basin due to high PFAS levels in the animals’ bodies.

Some PFAS have been shown to cause cancer of the kidneys, testis, 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 entered waters from consumer and industrial products such as nonstick pans and flame retardants. They are called “forever chemicals,” because they do not break down or go away naturally. 

Oregon will receive $19 million for community water systems throughout this year, according to a Feb. 21 statement from Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. Merkley is chair of a Senate environment committee that wrote the legislation allocating the funds.

The money will go toward drinking water systems serving 10,000 or fewer people and to communities where residents earn less than the state median household income of around $70,000. 

The grants are part of $25 billion states will share over the next five years to address PFAS contamination in drinking water nationwide under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021. 

The health authority has done limited testing for the most toxic of the PFAS in public drinking water systems in the state. 

In 2021, in partnership with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Health Authority tested 140 public water systems — or slightly more than 5% — of the state’s 2,5000 public water systems. They focused on public drinking water systems that were close to areas where PFAS had been used or where there was known contamination, such as those near landfills or near areas where a large amount of firefighting foam had been used. The agencies tested for 25 high-risk PFAS. Of the 140 water systems tested, five had detectable levels of some PFAS, but none at levels that exceeded the state’s limits. 

The EPA recently mandated all states test public drinking water systems for 29 PFAS, which the Oregon Health Authority is beginning to undertake this year.

In an interview with the Capital Chronicle in August, Kari Salis, a drinking water manager at the health authority, said PFAS contamination is a concern for the agency and that there is still a lot to learn about the health impacts. 

“These contaminants don’t go away,” Salis said. “They accumulate over time in our environment and in the human body.” 

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.

Salis said if unsafe levels of PFAS are discovered in any drinking water systems, the options are to find a new source or to treat the water using activated carbon that attracts some contaminants or use reverse osmosis filtration. The latter is cumbersome and not commonly used for large water systems, according to Salis. 

The federal money will be used primarily for testing and treating for PFAS, followed by other emerging contaminants such as manganese and cyanotoxins. Manganese, a metal, can exist in high concentrations in rock and soil, and cyanotoxins are released from algal blooms that form in water with too much fertilizer and phosphorus pollution. Both can make humans sick when consumed.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.