Toxic Reduction and Safer Alternatives

As part of the Toxics Reduction program, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is working with the Oregon Health Authority and other federal, state, and local agency partners to develop a greater understanding about the implications of per- and poly-fluorinated substances (PFAS) for Oregon. PFAS are a family of human-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s.

As of today, no major source of PFAS has been found in Oregon that would create regular exposure for Oregonians. The primary concern for human exposure to the class of chemicals known as PFAS is drinking water. In a 2013-2015 study of major public drinking water systems (serving populations over 10,000) and some smaller systems, testing in Oregon found no detection of PFAS. More of these studies will occur in the future, but unlike some of the states that have needed to take more immediate action, Oregon has seen no indication of public drinking water contamination.

Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) are a large group of human-made chemicals that have historically been used in a variety of ways, including in firefighting foams or to make non-stick, water-repellent, or stain-repellent products. Some of these chemicals are now known to be harmful to human health at high levels if regularly exposed to them.
No major source of PFAS has been found in Oregon that would create regular exposure for Oregonians. DEQ has identified some of the potential ways PFAS could get into the environment. Some work has been done already to test for PFAS in these forms as described below.
  • Drinking water. A study of major public drinking water systems (serving populations over 10,000) and some smaller systems, found no detection of PFAS in Oregon.
  • Military facilities. Fire-fighting foams containing PFAS have been used at military facilities. A compilation of data from groundwater wells near military facilities’ private well indicated that all 10 facilities located in Oregon are below 14.3 parts per trillion - well below the EPA chronic lifetime health advisory of 70 ppt, the metric for the level at which regular exposure over your life is unhealthy.
  • Food. DEQ is participating in interstate forums to learn more about PFAS in food packaging, and supported the development of a “roadmap” for assessing alternatives to PFAS in such packaging. In addition, DEQ is tracking ongoing studies of biosolids (waste turned into fertilizer) and fish tissue samples. There are currently no standards or advisory levels for PFAS in biosolids. If PFAS were found in Oregon biosolids, DEQ would compare those levels with levels of concern determined by other states and evaluate options for regular testing and operational controls. The Oregon Health Authority would be responsible for any necessary fish consumption advisory, and would closely coordinate with DEQ on evaluating tissue monitoring results.
  • Air deposition. Cleaner Air Oregon requested toxic pollution emissions reports from industries that included PFAS. As of the end of 2018, no facilities have reported PFAS emissions.
  • Fire-fighting foam. PFAS is present in fire-fighting foams that have been used for training and fire suppression in Oregon. To date, PFAS at facilities using those foams have been found in shallow groundwater and soil, and to a lesser degree in surface water and stormwater. DEQ’s Voluntary Cleanup Program is providing oversight and technical input to the land owners or facility operators where such contamination has been found. Current data indicates that this contamination does not pose a threat to public drinking water.
Risk is a combination of two factors: toxicity and exposure. If there is a bucket of very hazardous waste, but it’s locked in a room where no one will ever be exposed to it, risk is still low. Similarly, something like water is not toxic at all, so even at a very high exposure, you are not at risk.
Not all types of PFAS have known health implications. The 2013-2015 study of all major public drinking water systems and some small systems tested for six types of PFAS. These six types are the ones for which there is established testing methodology and that have known harmful health impacts if a person is regularly exposed to them over the course of a lifetime.
No detections were found in Oregon. This means, from a risk perspective, that there is no immediate risk to Oregonians. DEQ is continuing to investigate whether there are other ways humans are being exposed that could be monitored or controlled through existing DEQ programs.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the potential for health effects from PFAS in humans is not well understood. Some types of PFAS, such as PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS and PFNA, have generally been studied more extensively than other forms of PFAS. In general, animal studies have found that animals regularly exposed to PFAS at high levels resulted in changes in the function of the liver, thyroid, pancreas and hormone levels.
Oregon Health Authority has stated that the primary concern for exposure to PFAS is through drinking water. To date, PFAS have not been detected in public drinking water systems in Oregon.
Health effect information comes from studies of certain PFAS chemicals where there were: 1) occupational exposures to high levels of PFAS; 2) people living near industrial facilities where PFAS were produced; and 3) people exposed to contaminated drinking water. Additional information about health effects comes from studies of animals. The research suggests that exposure to high levels of these PFAS may:
  • Affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and children.
  • Reduce a woman’s chance of getting pregnant.
  • Interfere with the body’s hormones.
  • Increase cholesterol levels.
  • Affect the immune system.
  • Increase the risk of cancer.
Much of what is known about health effects is based on studies of some older PFAS which have been more widely researched than PFOS and PFOA and are newer generations of PFAS. More research is needed to help scientists fully understand how PFAS may affect human health. 
More information is available from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website on PFAS and their Health Effects.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a drinking water health advisory of 70 ppt for a combined concentration of PFOA and PFOS (two types of PFAS with known negative health impacts on humans). If exceeded, EPA recommends agencies assess the contamination, inform customers and limit exposure. EPA is exploring establishing drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS, including an enforcement mechanism, by setting a Maximum Contaminant Level.
The Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is a federal public health agency with a role in evaluating whether exposures to contaminants pose a health threat. However, they do not have regulatory authority, so they work with national organizations, like EPA, to establish national guidance and regulatory standards for public drinking water supplies. ATSDR has published screening levels for four forms of PFAS in drinking water. The screening levels ranged from 14 to 140 ppt for children and 52 to 517 ppt for adults. To learn more about ATSDR’s screen levels, visit their webpage here.
No state-specific health advisories or limits have been established in Oregon. States that have established PFAS regulations collected data showing elevated levels of PFAS in public drinking water. The 2013-2015 study of all nation-wide public water drinking systems serving populations over 10,000 (and some smaller systems) found no detection of PFAS in Oregon’s drinking water. However, as an emerging contaminant of concern, DEQ is working with Oregon Health Authority and other state agency partners to evaluate the next steps that should be taken in Oregon.