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.”

PF​​AS fact sheet

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. Most PFAS do not break down over time after released to the environment, while others transform into other types of PFAS. 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 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. More of these data collection efforts will occur in the future.
  • Health advisory levels: EPA has set a chronic lifetime health advisory for drinking water of 70 ppt, the level at which EPA has determined regular exposure over your life is unhealthy. OHA is also developing its own health advisory levels for PFAS in drinking water. Once those numbers are finalized, OHA will compare measured concentrations against those new numbers instead of EPA's health advisory levels. All OHA health advisory levels under development are lower than EPA's level of 70 ppt.
  • 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 ppt, 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.
  • 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 food 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. DEQ continues to evaluate options for regular testing and operational controls to ensure our programs are protective of human health and the environment. 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: DEQ's air toxics program, Cleaner Air Oregon, requested in 2017 toxic pollution emissions reports from industries that included PFAS. No facilities reported PFAS emissions. DEQ expects to refine emissions inventories as more information comes available about industrial PFAS use and related air emissions.
  • Industrial discharges: DEQ is assessing the potential risks of PFAS releases to the environment from industrial facilities that use PFAS and generate PFAS pollution. Based on findings from other states, solid waste landfills and municipal wastewater treatment facilities can provide pathways for PFAS releases due to the widespread community use of everyday products containing PFAS. However, those facilities are not the originating sources of PFAS pollution.​

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.

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.

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. Reference doses under development by OHA could aid in assessment of health risk.

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.​

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.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a non-regulatory, non-enforceable drinking water health advisory of 70 ppt 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.

No state-specific health advisories or limits have been established yet in Oregon, although OHA is currently developing drinking water health advisory levels for PFAS. 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 OHA. 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.​