What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are human-made compounds that have been in production since the 1940s and have been widely used in industrial applications, firefighting foam, and consumer products. Many PFAS are highly resistant to heat, oil, and water, making them valued for products such as food packaging, stain- and water-repellant fabrics, and nonstick cookware. Certain firefighting foams designed to suppress fuel fires contain PFAS; and, because they help reduce friction, PFAS are also used in a variety of other industries including aerospace, automotive, building and construction, and electronics.
As a class, PFAS include thousands of different chemicals. Research by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health effects. Currently, there are over 600 PFAS compounds that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved for sale or import into the United States. The most commonly detected and studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. Though industry in the United States has voluntarily phased out PFOA and PFOS, they are still persistent in the environment.
Due to their widespread use, mobility, and tendency to persist for long periods of time, PFAS can often be detected at low ambient levels in the environment. In places where PFAS have actually contaminated water supplies, such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility, for example, at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs or an industrial facility where PFAS were produced or used to manufacture other products.
Why are PFAS a concern for drinking water?
Unfortunately, some communities around the country have experienced levels of PFOA or PFOS in their water that exceed the applicable health advisory level. Springfield does not have any known sources of PFAS contamination. Nevertheless, given PFAS’ emergence as a contaminant of concern for groundwater, in 2019, SUB voluntarily opted to regularly sample its well water to ensure a safe water supply. Rainbow followed suit one year later.
What do Rainbow’s sampling results mean?
SUB first sampled for PFAS in 2013 as part of the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, which EPA uses to collect data for contaminants that are suspected to be present in drinking water and do not have health-based standards set under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Rainbow has a smaller population and was not required to participate at the time. In 2013, SUB did not have detections of any PFAS chemicals. Analytical methods have improved considerably since then. In 2013, the laboratory analysis could detect PFAS chemical concentrations of 0.01 ppb or greater; detection limits are now as low as 0.002 ppb. Moreover, the number of individual chemicals the labs can test for has increased substantially. In other words, more advanced analytical methods are now able to detect a greater variety of chemicals and at incredibly low levels.
In May of 2019, in response to new revelations about PFAS contamination in other parts of the country, SUB developed a voluntary sampling plan for all of its groundwater sources. Samples were analyzed for 18 different PFAS chemicals, the maximum possible with laboratory methods at that time. Rainbow developed our own voluntary sampling program and began collecting samples in March 2020 to contribute data to SUB's efforts.
Detectable, but extremely low, concentrations of PFAS compounds have been detected in several wells. Rainbow continues to voluntarily sample for PFAS at our entry points, which is where treated water enters the distribution system. The PFAS data are available in our water quality report. Rainbow normally presents its water quality data by referencing a maximum contaminant level (MCL), which is a regulatory threshold limit set by the EPA. There is no current MCL for any PFAS chemicals, but the EPA is working toward establishing regulatory limits for six PFAS, and Rainbow is closely watching the process. In 2021, the State of Oregon established a combined health advisory limit (HAL) for PFOS, PFOA, PFNA, and PFHxS of 0.030 ppb. The levels Rainbow has detected are below the state HAL. Rainbow takes water quality very seriously and is managing operation of its sources to mitigate against the presence of PFAS.
What are Rainbow’s next steps?
Rainbow is managing its operations accordingly until all mitigation options can be evaluated. SUB and Rainbow have worked with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to investigate potential sources of PFAS in Springfield’s Wellhead Protection Areas and will also continue to conduct voluntary sampling. We will use the findings of our investigation with DEQ along with future monitoring results to determine the best path forward. These steps, along with our robust drinking water protection program and diverse water system, will ensure that we continue to provide safe, high-quality water to our customers. Rainbow is participating in class action lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers in an effort to recover costs.
What are EPA’s next steps?
As a public water system, Rainbow looks to the EPA for both regulation and guidance. In October 2021, EPA released its PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which included, among other elements, a proposal to regulate PFOA and PFOS. In March of 2023, the EPA proposed new regulatory limits for six PFAS and anticipates finalizing the regulation by the end of 2023.
Where can I find more information?
The various online resources linked above provide a wealth of information about PFAS. The American Water Works Association has several fact sheets that specifically address PFAS and drinking water. For more in-depth information on a variety of PFAS-related topics, we recommend a guidance document by the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council (ITRC). To learn about how the State of Oregon is responding to PFAS concerns, visit the Oregon Health Authority PFAS FAQ page.
As always, feel free to contact Rainbow at 541-746-1676 with any questions about your water quality.
What can customers do?
Rainbow encourages all of its customers to join the effort to protect Springfield’s drinking water. To learn more about our drinking water sources and the ways we can all protect it together, look through our website or call Rainbow at 541-746-1676.