PFAS: Invisible. Forever. Everywhere.

By Lorri Epstein, Water Quality Director

Time to get real about forever chemicals, commonly known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS). PFAS are man-made chemicals used in a wide variety of consumer products, and they are found virtually everywhere: in your house, in the river, in raindrops in Tibet and Antarctica, and even in your bloodstream. They’re called forever chemicals because they don’t break down, but it’s time for us to break up with them.

You may have seen PFAS appearing in the news more lately, but even as recently as just a few years ago they weren’t on the radar for many people—despite the fact that these chemicals have been in use for decades. As attention on PFAS has increased, so has our understanding of their impacts, and the lack of safeguards around them have become frighteningly apparent. Keep reading for a primer on PFAS chemicals, their impacts on the Columbia River and river communities, and recent updates on their regulation.

What are Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)?

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have the ability to resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. Heralded for their waterproofing and stain proofing properties since the 1940s, they have been used in a huge variety of household and industrial products: food packaging, medical supplies, household items (like make up and cleaning products), carpets, clothing, furniture, non-stick cookware, firefighting foam, and semiconductors.

Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Harmful

Here’s the breakdown on forever chemicals…they don’t.

Often called “forever chemicals”, these chemicals do not break down in the environment and the PFAS produced in the 1940s are still in the environment today. They are incredibly pervasive and are found nearly everywhere. They are bioaccumulative, meaning they build up in the bodies of living organisms, causing harm to both human and ecosystem health. In fact, PFAS are so pervasive that research suggests PFAS are likely in the blood of nearly all Americans. We’re still uncovering the impacts of PFAS to human health but high levels of exposure can harm hormone, immune, and cardiovascular systems; cause reproductive and developmental issues; as well as increase the risk of cancer.

Are forever chemicals impacting the Columbia River and river communities?

According to available data, Oregon and Washington in general have lower levels of PFAS contamination than some other places in the United States. However, Columbia River communities have found PFAS in their drinking water supply. Studies also found contaminated groundwater at military and industrial sites along the Columbia River, as well as the Portland International Airport, the adjacent Portland Air National Guard Base, and the Portland Water Bureau’s Columbia South Shore Well Field in NE Portland. Many of these contaminated sites are related to frequent use of firefighting foam. Researchers also detected PFAS in sediments and fish tissues from Columbia Slough, leading the Oregon Health Authority to modify the fish advisory on the Columbia Slough to recommend no whole-body fish consumption.

What are the most common pathways of exposure for humans?

One of the most common pathways of PFAS exposure is through drinking water. In fact PFAS contamination in drinking water is widespread across U.S. communities. And yes, PFAS have been detected in drinking water in communities along the Columbia River. Other common pathways include eating food contaminated from packaging materials, exposure from consumer products like non-stick cookware, exposure to stain resistant clothing, furniture or carpet, eating contaminated fish, and inhaling PFAS-contaminated dust.

How are PFAS managed and regulated?

PFAS chemicals have not been well regulated. For decades these toxic chemicals have been widely used with almost no protections from the government, allowing them to

build up in the environment and in people. However, we are finally starting to see some new policies around managing them. In 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating PFAS with the first legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS. This is a great first step, but there is still plenty of work to be done including increasing monitoring, improving analytical methods, prioritizing the passage of protective legislation and regulatory standards, and enforcing existing laws. Furthermore, PFOS and PFOA have been the most extensively produced and studied of the PFAS chemicals, but many experts argue the PFAS should be managed as an entire class of chemicals rather than regulated on a chemical-by-chemical basis.

Want to learn more?

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This project has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement RB-02J14801-0 to Columbia Riverkeeper. The contents of this fact sheet do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor does the EPA endorse trade names or recommend the use of commercial products mentioned in the fact sheet.

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