What are PFAS?

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are persistent human-made compounds used in a wide variety of industrial and consumer products. They 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 fire-fighting 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 includes thousands of different chemicals, and some are now known to have 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.

Why are PFAS a Concern for Drinking Water?

Due to their widespread use and their 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.

Unfortunately, some communities around the country have experienced levels of PFOA or PFOS in their water that exceed the EPA health advisory level of 0.07 parts per billion (ppb). Springfield does not have any known sources of PFAS contamination. Nevertheless, given PFAS’ emergence as a contaminant of concern for groundwater, SUB has opted to voluntarily sample its well water.

Advancements in Sampling Methods

SUB has sampled for PFAS in 2013 and 2019. As the section below describes in more detail, SUB had no detections in 2013 and some very low detections in 2019. The difference in the sampling results between 2013 and 2019 is most likely explained by improvements in analytical methods. In 2013, the laboratory analysis could detect PFAS concentrations of 0.01 ppb. That number was down to 0.002 ppb in 2019. Moreover, the number of individual chemicals the labs can test for has increased from six to 14. In other words, more advanced analytical methods are now able to detect a greater variety of chemicals and at incredibly low levels.

What Do SUB’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). In 2013, SUB did not have detections of any PFAS.

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. SUB collected multiple rounds of samples over a five-month period. Samples were analyzed for 14 different PFAS chemicals (the maximum possible with current laboratory methods). Of the 24 wells that were included in the testing, two wells, SP and Sports Way, had detections of PFAS. The initial sample at Sports Way found a very low concentration (0.0022 ppb) of one chemical (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid). SUB then collected two confirmation samples at Sports Way, and both were non-detect.

SP Well had multiple low-level detections, as shown in the table below:

Analyte parts per billion (ppb)August 15, 2019 (Eurofins Lab)August 15, 2019 (Wech Lab)October 3, 2019 (Eurofins Lab)
Perfluoroheptanoic acid0.00770.00790.013
Perfluorohexanoic acid0.0170.0150.025
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)0.00460.00490.0072

SUB normally presents its water quality data by referencing a maximum contaminant level (MCL), which is a regulatory threshold limit set by the EPA. However, none of the chemicals detected at SP well has an MCL. The EPA has issued a non-regulatory health advisory of 0.070 ppb combined for PFOA and PFOS combined.

Though the levels found in SP well are well below the EPA health advisory, SUB takes any level of contaminant in its water supply very seriously. Fortunately, SP is a seasonal peaking well, which means it typically operates only in the summer. SP was not running when SUB received confirmation of the PFAS detections, and SUB has suspended operation of the well until all mitigation options can be evaluated.

What are SUB’s Next Steps?

As noted above, SUB has suspended operation of SP well until all mitigation options can be evaluated. SUB is actively working with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to investigate potential sources of PFAS in Springfield’s Wellhead Protection Areas. SUB 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. Fortunately, SUB has a robust drinking water protection program and a redundant water system, meaning that we are typically able to rely on our other water sources to serve our customers while we take the necessary time to safeguard SP water.

What are EPA’s Next Steps?

As a public water system, SUB looks to the US EPA for both regulation and guidance. In February 2020, EPA released its PFAS Action Plan, which includes, among other elements, a proposal to regulate PFOA and PFOS. Though it will take time before we have an MCL for PFOA/PFOS, this move by EPA marks an important step toward providing clear guidance to public water systems.

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 newly-released guidance document by the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council (ITRC).

As always, feel free to contact the SUB Water Division at 541-726-2396 with any questions about your water quality.

What Can Customers Do?

SUB 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, visit our web site or call the SUB Water Division at 541-726-2396.