BEND — The supply of drinking water at the Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program on Dodds Road near Bend, as well as nine other national guard facilities in Oregon, contains toxic fluorinated chemicals, according to data released by a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization.
While the levels of PFAS chemicals in the water fall within those considered safe by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, some scientists are concerned that even low levels are unhealthy.
The Environmental Working Group, the D.C.-based nonprofit, issued its findings on the PFAS levels on Sept. 11. The group obtained its information from newly released Department of Defense test results under the Freedom of Information Act.
Nicknamed “forever chemicals,” PFAS chemicals never break down in the environment and accumulate in the human body. The chemicals can be found in nonstick pans, waterproof clothing and food packaging, such as microwave popcorn bags. They are also found in firefighting foam, a common product used for training on military bases.
Studies link these chemicals to thyroid problems, cancer and child development issues, especially if exposed at levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.
“PFAS are man-made chemicals that should not be in drinking water and raise concerns when they are detected,” said David Andrews, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group. “Although the concentrations found in water are often in the low parts per trillion, these chemicals are potent in incredibly small amounts.”
The Youth Challenge Program, as well as the other national guard sites, draws water from an on-site well. The National Guard facility on Simpson Avenue in Bend is connected to the city water supply and was therefore not tested.
The youth program is Oregon’s only accredited statewide alternative high school and uses a nontraditional education model similar to a military academy. Targeted students are those who are failing or have dropped out of traditional high schools.
Frank Tallman, the school’s deputy director, said the school conducts water testing on a monthly basis and has so far found no contaminants.
The other site tested in Deschutes County was the Central Oregon Unit Training Equipment Site, east of Redmond Airport, said Jim Arnold, environmental branch chief for the Oregon Military Department. Vehicles and equipment for the Biak Training Center, located about 1 mile away, are housed at the site.
Other military bases in Oregon that had some trace elements of PFAS include the Christmas Valley Air Force Station, Roseburg Armory, Grants Pass Armory, the Lane County Armed Forces Reserve Center and the Anderson Readiness Center in Salem.
Testing at the Youth Challenge site was conducted in June 2017, according to Department of Defense data reviewed by The Bulletin.
Aqueous film-forming foam concentrates, also known as firefighting foam, have been identified as a major source of contamination at most Department of Defense facilities, said Andrews.
While earlier generations of firefighting foam had high levels of PFAS, those foams are no longer used in training exercises, said Maj. Stephen Bomar, public affairs officer for the Oregon National Guard. Rainstorms can cause chemicals to leach into the ground and groundwater, Bomar said.
With the completion of the Defense Department testing, the next move is to identify where the chemicals were released, Bomar said. Inspectors will sample the soil and water.
Among the Oregon National Guard facilities, the highest level of detected PFAS chemicals was found at the Christmas Valley site, which had 14.3 total parts per trillion detected. The Oregon Youth Challenge site had 9.75 parts per trillion detected and the site near the Redmond Airport had 3.72 parts per trillion detected, according to the Environmental Working Group report.
These numbers were far lower than other detected PFAS levels elsewhere in the country. The Joint Forces Training Base in California, for example, registered 790.5 parts per trillion.
The chemicals are not uncommon among American public drinking water systems, studies show. They have been found in the drinking water of 19 million Americans in 49 states, according to a study by Northeastern University. The Environmental Working Group reports as many as 400 military sites nationwide have water with known or suspected PFAS contamination.
In response to its findings, the Army has installed filtration systems — or changed water sources — at all locations where the drinking water contamination from the chemicals exceeded the lifetime health advisory.
“At this point we are following the EPA and (Department of Environmental Quality) lead to continue using (the water) as normal,” said Arnold. “That 70 part per trillion is the advisory level and the level (at the school) is well below that.”
There are currently no U.S. Army personnel or families drinking water that contain contaminants above the lifetime health advisory, according to the Army in a statement to Environmental Working Group.
But the group believes that any level above 1 part per trillion is an unsafe level.
“These results are alarming because they show that PFAS contamination of the water provided to our soldiers is nationwide and exposes them to a number of types of PFAS,” said Andrews, the working group scientist.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is working with several military sites in the state to assess PFAS levels from firefighting foam.
“The DEQ isn’t aware of any drinking water wells in Oregon that exceed EPA health levels,” said Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist for the department’s office in Bend. “PFAS are emerging chemicals of concern, and DEQ is working with Oregon Health Authority to identify a plan for how to address these chemicals more broadly in Oregon’s environment.”
“The levels detected at Oregon military sites are below the current EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, which is the level set to protect public health,” Gleim added.
Governments are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of fluorinated chemicals. This week, Denmark became the first country to ban PFAS in food packaging.
Pending legislation in Congress would for the first time mandate new monitoring and cleanup by the Department of Defense and the EPA. The changes will appear in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, for 2020. The bills would end the Pentagon’s use of fluorinated firefighting foam and end the military’s use of PFAS in food packaging.
In July, the Trump administration voiced opposition to the bills, saying they would be vetoed if brought to the Oval Office.
“Congress should not wait for President Trump’s EPA to act,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “The final NDAA must quickly end the Defense Department’s use of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging, and kick-start efforts to clean up legacy PFAS pollution.”