OHA and DEQ monitor 150 drinking water systems for harmful chemicals

Environment

Joseph Cagle, from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, works on the PFAS extractions instrument on Oct. 20, 2021. Photo courtesy Oregon DEQ

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality are working together to test about 150 drinking water systems across the state to check for PFAS chemical contamination. 

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a group of thousands of different manufactured products that have been used in a variety of commercial products since the 1940s. They’re in things like household items and firefighting foam. 

OHA and DEQ say these chemicals do not break down in the environment and human body and can accumulate over time. 

The drinking water systems OHA and DEQ are testing have been identified as potentially at risk of contamination due to their proximity to a known or suspected PFAS use or contamination site. 

The testing is meant to ensure customers are not being exposed to potentially harmful chemicals in their water, OHA and DEQ said. 

Sites in 33 of Oregon’s 36 counties will be monitored. All systems being analyzed serve fewer than 10,000 people and have either groundwater or surface water sources. 

KOIN 6 News contacted one drinking water system on the list, Rivergrove Water District in Lake Oswego, to ask about the tests and if it’s concerned about PFAS in its water system. Rivergrove Water District has three sampling points. 

The district said it’s not concerned about PFAS and considers the testing routine and precautionary. The district is waiting for the results and will take any necessary actions if the tests come back with any concerning results. 

OHA told KOIN 6 News it collected similar samples for PFAS between 2013 and 2015 on larger water systems, those serving more than 10,000 people. There were no detections in Oregon, it said. 

Large water systems serving 3,300 people or more will be sampled again between 2023 and 2025, under the next round of the Environmental Protection Agency’s unregulated contaminant monitoring. 

OHA said the most common and concerning use of PFAS is in AFFF firefighting foams. It’s checking for PFAS near sites where these foams were used or stored, such as training sites, fire stations, airports, railyards or sites where fires occurred and foams were used. AFFF is not used for wildland firefighting. 

High levels of certain PFAS can cause increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, small decreases in infant birth weights, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 

OHA said if tests show PFAS above Oregon Health Advisory levels, officials will collect a confirmation sample. If that comes back with high levels, OHA will issue a public notice to customers of the drinking water system. Pregnant people breastfeeding people, bottle-fed infants and immunocompromised people would be advised to use alternate drinking water supplies. 

OHA said it would work with the water system to mitigate the source of contamination. 

A list of the water systems selected for monitoring is posted on Oregon Health Authority’s website. 

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