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 analysis of major public drinking water systems (serving populations over 10,000) and some smaller systems, testing in Oregon found no detection of PFAS. However, more of these data collection efforts will occur in the future, and DEQ and OHA are evaluating appropriate policy responses to prevent and address potential PFAS pollution in the state.

Drinking water monitoring

OHA is conducting a PFAS drinking water monitoring project in the fall of 2021 at public water systems in Oregon identified as at risk due to their proximity to a known or suspected PFAS use or contamination site. The purpose of this sampling project is to make sure customers are not being exposed to potentially harmful PFAS chemicals in their drinking water. The analysis is being paid for through an EPA grant and will be done at no cost to water systems. DEQ’s laboratory will analyze drinking water samples from select public water systems for 25 PFAS compounds. Please visit the OHA website for more information.

PF​​AS fact sheet

PFAS are a group of chemicals that are considered “emerging environmental contaminants” because public knowledge about their harmful effects and how they’re regulated are relatively new or undeveloped. PFAS are water soluble and highly mobile, and can accumulate in living organisms. Many newer PFAS transform into highly persistent perfluorinated chemicals in the environment, and can last for hundreds to thousands of years, depending on the PFAS compound. There are no natural processes that can break these substances down.

PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industrial processes and consumer products worldwide since the 1940s. PFAS have been found to be present in soil, surface water, groundwater, wastewater treatment plant effluents and biosolids, air, numerous consumer goods, food packaging, and at some level in the blood of every human being in the U.S., and likely globally.

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, such as PFOS and PFOA, which have been more widely researched than newer generations of PFAS. More research is needed to help scientists fully understand how different 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.

DEQ has designated PFAS as one of 60 priority chemicals or chemical classes for its Toxics Reduction Strategy. In addition, DEQ is working with the Oregon Health Authority and other federal, state, and local agency partners to address growing public health and environmental concerns. DEQ and OHA are evaluating appropriate policy responses to protect public health and the environment from PFAS contamination.

Although PFAS can be found in air, water and soil, the primary concern for human exposure to this class of chemicals in Oregon is from potential drinking water contamination. In 2013-2015, EPA tested 65 major public drinking water systems (serving populations over 10,000) and some smaller systems in Oregon for six PFAS compounds (PFOS, PFOA, PFNA, PFHxS, PFHpA, and PFBS). Their analysis of these drinking water systems found no detection of PFAS.

DEQ air, land and water programs, as well as the DEQ lab, are taking the following steps to address PFAS:

  • Identifying sites that may use PFAS in their operations

  • Overseeing site testing and assessment of impacts

  • Using newly developed analytical methods for testing for PFAS in water

  • Using Cleaner Air Oregon's dataon requested toxic pollutant emissions reports from industries that included PFAS

  • Coordinating with federal, state, and local agency partners

PFAS are common in the products people use on a daily basis. The biggest concern for PFAS exposure is through drinking water. In Oregon, a study of all major public drinking water systems (serving populations greater than 10,000) and some smaller systems found no detections of PFAS. So far, Oregonians do not seem to be exposed to these chemicals in harmful amounts through their water.
  • Drinking water: A 2013-2015 analysis  of major public drinking water systems (serving populations over 10,000) and some smaller systems, found no detection of PFAS in Oregon's public drinking water systems. The Oregon Health Authority is conducting a PFAS drinking water monitoring project in fall 2021 at public water systems in Oregon identified as at risk due to their proximity to a known or suspected PFAS use or contamination site. The purpose of this sampling project is to make sure customers are not being exposed to potentially harmful PFAS chemicals in their drinking water. The analysis is being paid for through an EPA grant and will be done at no cost to the water system. DEQ's laboratory will analyze drinking water samples from select public water systems for 25 PFAS compounds. Please visit the OHA website for more information.

  • Fire-fighting foam: Fire-fighting foams containing PFAS have been used in Oregon to suppress fires involving fuels and other flammable liquids, and have been deployed at military and fire-fighting training facilities. To date, PFAS has been found in shallow groundwater monitoring wells and soil, and to a lesser degree in surface water and stormwater at some facilities using those foams. A compilation of data from groundwater wells at military facilities indicated that all 10 facilities in Oregon are below the EPA chronic lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion, the level at which EPA has determined regular exposure over your life is unhealthy. 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. DEQ is also working with other states, local governments and the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office to evaluate alternatives to PFAS-based fire-fighting foam, and to plan outreach efforts to fire services with the goal of having them eventually switch to using more environmentally friendly foams that have been vetted for toxicity, technical performance and cost.

  • Food: Studies show that many consumer products and product packaging contain toxic chemicals that can escape and contaminate food. DEQ is participating in interstate forums to learn more about PFAS in food packaging, and to support the development of a “roadmap" for assessing alternatives to PFAS in food packaging. In addition, DEQ is tracking ongoing studies of biosolids (waste turned into fertilizer) and fish tissue samples. DEQ continues to evaluate options for regular testing and operational controls to ensure our programs are protective of human health and the environment. OHA would be responsible for any necessary fish consumption advisory, and would closely coordinate with DEQ on evaluating tissue monitoring results.

  • Air: DEQ's air toxics permitting program, Cleaner Air Oregon, requested toxic pollution emissions reports from industries that included PFAS, in 2017; currently, a much larger list of 172 PFAS are required to be reported. No facilities reported PFAS emissions in 2017; data for 2021 is not yet available. DEQ expects to refine emissions inventories as more information becomes available about industrial PFAS use and related air emissions. DEQ's air toxics program is also concerned with possible migration of PFAS through air from facilities (although so far this source appears of be of low concern), from sites where fire-fighting foam is or has been used, and potentially from landfills.

  • Industrial discharges: Based on findings from other states, solid waste landfills and municipal wastewater treatment facilities can provide pathways for PFAS releases to the environment. Although these facilities do not use PFAS, commonly used products containing the chemicals can accumulate in solid waste landfill and wastewater treatment facilities. DEQ is assessing the potential risks of PFAS releases from solid waste landfills and municipal water treatment facilities.

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 low. Similarly, something like water is not toxic at all, so even at high exposure it has minimal risk.

EPA has set a chronic lifetime health advisory for drinking water of 70 parts per trillion, the level at which EPA has determined regular exposure over human life is unhealthy. OHA has developed its own health advisory levels for PFAS in drinking water that are lower than EPA's.

Not all types of PFAS have known health implications. The 2013-2015 analysis 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. However, these six PFAS are a small subset of the 172 PFAS compounds that EPA now requires selected industries to report under the Toxics Release Inventory program, most of which do not yet have available toxicity information or testing methodologies. It's an even smaller subset of the 7,000+ known PFAS compounds.  

DEQ will continue to work with EPA, OHA and other agencies to evaluate other PFAS screening tools to gain a more comprehensive understanding of potential PFAS risks in Oregon. Research has shown that many newer “short-chain" PFAS, which have been deemed safer than the older “long-chain" PFAS, can transform into the more toxic and persistent forms of PFAS in the environment, or through manufacturing processes or combustion. These scientific realities make managing PFAS as a class, rather than on a chemical-by-chemical basis, a more effective and efficient approach for reducing PFAS risks and impacts.

DEQ is continuing to investigate whether there are other ways humans are being exposed that could be monitored or controlled through existing DEQ programs. As more scientific research is produced on PFAS, risk determinations in Oregon may change over time.

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, 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.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a non-regulatory, non-enforceable drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for an individual or 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. EPA is also working on other PFAS policy and research actions, involving soil, air, surface water and drinking water, and is evaluating whether to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under federal rules.

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, it does not have regulatory authority, so it works with national organizations like EPA to establish national guidance and regulatory standards for public drinking water supplies. The agency 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. Learn more about ATSDR's screening levels here.

In 2011, as part of the Oregon Priority Persistent Pollutant program for water quality, DEQ established “initiation levels" in rule for five types of PFAS in municipal wastewater effluent. When these levels are exceeded, municipal wastewater facilities are required to develop pollution prevention plans. In addition, PFOS is designated as one of 68 chemicals of high concern for children's health under the Oregon Toxics-Free Kids Act (2015) administered by the Oregon Health Authority. Manufacturers must report the presence of these chemicals of concern in children's products, and then phase out the use of the chemicals in a subset of those products.

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.

​By engaging with other agencies across the country, DEQ is leveraging their lessons learned as we develop appropriate policies and procedures to address this family of contaminants here in Oregon.

A health advisory is a suggested limitation of exposure. If exceeded, agencies are often required to notify the public, but there is no enforcement mechanism. Oregon Health Authority issues such advisories for fish consumption, harmful algae blooms, and beach access. A regulatory limit is a legal maximum. If exceeded, the regulatory agency can compel the party responsible for the exceedance to complete a corrective action to come back into compliance.
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General information about PFAS