The Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Environmental Quality have identified 15 sites in Linn and Benton counties that need to be tested for the presence of toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
The sites include a school, several mobile home parks, industrial sites and municipal water systems.
PFAS stands for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of chemicals widely used to manufacture certain products since the 1940s – such as non-stick pans and fireproof foam used by firefighters and the military. PFAS compounds can also be found in food, air, water, soil, fish and wildlife.
Neither agency could provide specifics as to why these sites have been selected or which PFAS concerns exist near the sites. Representatives for the sites who could be reached for comment all said they don’t know why they’ve been included on the list.
PFAS compounds break down very slowly, meaning they can build up in the environment and even inside of the human body. Colloquially, they’re known as the “forever” chemicals.
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While all the health effects of PFAS are not yet known, a post on the Environmental Protection Agency website reports that several peer-reviewed studies show that PFAS buildup in the body can lead to reproductive health issues, developmental disabilities in children and increased risk of some cancers.
Hence, the state’s sampling and testing of water systems. Any water system that contains 30 parts per million rises to the advisory level established by Oregon agencies.
The state already conducted tests in 2013 through 2015, DEQ officials said, focusing on nearly all of Oregon’s larger water systems – defined as those that impact 10,000 or more customers – and found none with PFAS concerns.
Now, the smaller systems are left, and the ones being tapped for testing first are “because of their proximity to known or suspected PFAS use or contamination site,” according to an October news release.
“The purpose of the monitoring project is to make sure customers are not being exposed to potentially harmful PFAS chemicals in their water,” the release says.
The state emphasized that being on the list does not mean those water systems are contaminated, but that they are next for testing.
Cascades Elementary in Lebanon is one of the sites identified, though the Lebanon Community School District officials say they aren’t aware of any sites nearby where PFAS might be produced or disposed of.
“No, we’re not aware of any concern, but what I do have is that we check our water at schools with wells every month,” said Paula Shoulders, the facilities administrator who performs the testing at the district’s schools. “Every month we do a different set of testing … chloroforms, nitrates, anything. We have it set up on a schedule for lead polymers … we’re really on top of our sampling for our water source.”
Representatives from the cities of Brownsville and Adair Village, the latter a former Army training base, also said they don’t know why they were added to this list.
“I just got the letter too, so I don’t know a whole lot about it,” said Adair Village Public Works Director Matt Liden. “We’ll get further details on what we need to do.”
Brownsville Public Works Director Karl Frink described officials there as pretty confused.
“We don’t have any real industry here in Brownsville, so I don’t know why they’re considering us in this group.”
The DEQ and OHA provided no further clarification about potential or suspected PFAS sources at these local sites in time for this report.
“The specific PFAS source criteria that triggered sampling for water systems in Linn and Benton counties is not immediately available due to key staff being unavailable at the moment and would require a little more time to assemble,” OHA Communications Officer Jonathan Modie said in an email.
The issue of PFAS in the environment is something for which states such as Oregon only have recently developed testing methods. Michigan and a few others, which have well-documented issues with water system pollutants, have been monitoring their systems longer.
Oregon doesn’t have the same water pollution concerns as Michigan, but state agencies here are in an analysis phase to determine if there is a widespread problem.
“The good news is Oregon doesn’t have PFAS chemical manufacturers, and there are not a lot of known sources on the industrial side, but there are a lot of sectors that haven’t been studied a lot,” said Kevin Masterson, a toxic pollutants consultant for the Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies. “We’re still in the assessment phase and trying to get a handle on the problem, if there is a major problem.”
Modie said testing is scheduled to start this week, with state employees or on-site specialists collecting samples from the water systems and sending them off to a DEQ lab for testing. If advisory levels of PFAS are found, a confirmation sample will be collected.
If confirmed, the agency will send out a public notice to affected customers. Sensitive groups, including pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, children who are bottle feeding and immunocompromised people would be advised to use alternative drinking water supplies.
Results of the testing will be provided online at https://yourwater.oregon.gov/.
Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.