Kevin Masterson is the toxics coordinator for Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. His main job is to find ways to reduce toxic chemicals in the environment – in air, water and on land.
I wanted to get his perspective on toxic chemicals in the air, water and everyday products and what Oregon’s new Toxics Reduction Strategy can do about them.
Here are four key takeaways from our conversation:
- The toxicity of any chemical depends largely on how much of it you’re exposed to.
- The harmful exposure levels are much lower for fish and wildlife than they are for humans.
- We don’t have any exposure standards or regulations for many toxic chemicals.
- Oregon’s primary strategy for reducing toxic chemicals is to encourage voluntary reductions, rather than trying to impose new regulations.
Here’s our conversation in Q&A format:So, what are toxics?
Toxics are chemicals that have an adverse impact on both humans and ecological organisms. The adverse effects can be both chronic and acute.
There’s a range of potential impacts that toxic chemicals can have. Each chemical is different in terms of its level of effect and at what concentration it can have an adverse impact.
We often hear that any substance can be toxic. Many substances we normally don’t think of as being toxic can be toxic if you’re exposed to enough of it. It really is dependent on the concentration and the quantity the total quantity that’s either absorbed, ingested, or inhaled.
How does Oregon regulate toxic substances?
We have a variety of rules that regulate chemicals considered toxic. Those programs set the threshold levels. Where there are thresholds set for what can be in the water, a toxic chemical can be in the water and not have an adverse effect on aquatic organisms.
It’s hard because there are a variety of toxic chemicals that don’t have set regulatory thresholds under either the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, or the Toxic Substances Control Act.
My job isn’t to get involved in determining what those levels are. It’s more about working with our laboratory folks to identify what’s in the environment at what levels and determine ways we can reduce the levels in the environment or that people are exposed to to a level that’s safe.
How many toxic chemicals are above the regulatory thresholds in Oregon?
Some areas get hit harder by toxic chemicals than others. In the Portland area, there are a number of areas in the Portland airshed where we’re exceeding benchmarks – not standards, but levels an advisory board determined are safe or not. Several areas within the Portland airshed that were exceeding benchmarks for things like benzene, which is a carcinogen.
In the watershed, in the lower Willamette, we have exceedances for certain toxic chemicals as well. Again, those are just the ones we have standards for, which is a pretty small portion of the world of toxic chemicals that could get into the environment. We’re looking at ways of reducing toxic pollutants upstream from the source so they don’t get into the water or the air. That is our primary toxic reduction strategy.
What are some of the highlights of DEQ’s Toxics Reduction Strategy?
We’re looking at ways of collaborating with retailers and third party certification organizations to reduce the number of high priority toxic chemicals that are in consumer products, and to educate folks about what to look for in terms of consumer products.
We’re looking at pesticides in watersheds and working with agricultural interests and other agencies – such as ag and forestry – to monitor waterways and determine whether there are concerns in terms of pesticides in the water. We’ll use that data to drive actions on the ground related to the areas of concern and the chemicals of concern. And then we measure those improvements over time.
We think just by showing interested parties and users of these chemicals that they’re getting into the water and at high frequencies – or at levels that are beyond even non-regulatory levels that have been set – that they’ll work to get those reductions. That way, we can avoid the regulatory approach altogether.
Which watersheds are you working on with the pesticides?
We have several Pesticide Stewardship Partnerships: In Hood River and on Fifteenmile Creek in Wasco County, on the Walla Walla River, the Clackamas River, Pudding River, the Yamhill and one on Amazon Creek in the Eugene Area.
The one in the Hood River started around 2000 as a lone pilot project for a few years until we could determine success, which was measured by whether pesticides were decreasing. Data is the driver to get people to participate.
We work with Oregon State University Extension Service, soil water conservation districts and the grower groups themselves on pest management, drift reduction and runoff reduction. They implement those practices, and we come back and monitor in subsequent years to see if it’s had an effect.
We’ve seen success in the Hood River and Wasco County watersheds, partly because they’re primarily agricultural lands used for growing tree fruits, so you can get everybody at the table pretty quickly and have folks agree to implement practices and see the results quickly.
On the Willamette there are so many chemicals used in so many different land uses – not just agriculture. One thing we’ve stressed is if that this program really has to address urban use of pesticides, forestry use of pesticides and use in rights of way. The herbicides we see in the water most frequently are ones that are used by multiple land uses in urban and residential areas – beyond just agriculture.
Do the chemicals you’re looking at pose a human health risk or only to fish and wildlife?
In most of the areas we’re monitoring, people are not using surface water for drinking water. The Clackamas is a different story. You have 300,000 people in that watershed drinking surface water. So, in that case, it’s both. We’d like to expand the program to groundwater to show that we’re protecting both human health and aquatic life.
A lot of these things don’t have regulatory standards but do have non-regulatory benchmarks. They’re lower for fish and other organisms because of the dose response effect. It takes smaller concentrations to see an adverse impact on fish than humans.
Why not regulate more toxic chemicals?
Most of our sphere of influence in regulatory measures is on the back end, when you release the pollutant through a pipe or discharge into the air or land. We don’t have a lot of control over the use of a chemical or mandating alternatives or mandating efficient of use of those chemicals.
Realistically, trying to get those types of regulations through the legislature would be a long shot. When you have regulatory programs, they certainly serve a useful purpose as a backstop, but when it comes to pollution prevention activities, we don’t have have a handle on it.
If we can get everyone at the table to agree on strategies to reduce toxic chemicals in air, water and land, we don’t have to go through an intensive regulatory process. We also feel we can get more bang for the buck by reducing lots of toxic pollutants rather than those that just have regulatory standards for. Relatively few chemicals have standards under some type or air, water, or land regulation. If you can address a range of different potential pollutants, we’re going to get more effective reduction for the limited resources that we have.
The primary goal is to reduce them in the environment, and that can be done in a number of ways. For some chemicals, it might be more effective just to improve efficiencies and reduce runoff or drift. In other cases, it might be finding safer or more effective alternatives. So, there are a range of options. In some cases, these chemicals may not have an effective substitute but a myriad of ways of limiting their entry into the environment. We don’t want to limit ourselves to only substitutions because that might not be practical in some cases.
What are the high priority toxics and products you find them in? Any that people would recognize in their daily lives?
The list we came up with is our starting point. They’re not the only chemicals we feel need to be reduced in the environment, but they’re the initial list we want to focus on.
There are emerging contaminants, ones that aren’t typically regulated, as well as old persistent contaminants.
We’re looking at reducing things like triclosan, which is an antibacterial ingredient in a lot of soaps and household things you can buy. Once washed into the drain, it can get into the environment and is fairly persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment. We don’t have any regulatory standards for it. So we have to work through voluntary pollution prevention efforts.
We still have some of those on our list that are familiar to people because they’ve been around a long time. But there are limited things we can do to control them now.
Things like DDT are still out in the environment, and we’ve found best way to reduce that in the environment is to prevent erosion – to stop soil particles from running off into the water.
Pthalates (basically plasticizers) are on our list – ones we don’t regulate for the most part. Some have Clean Water Act standards. A lot of these consumer product constituents we don’t have a lot of product standards for. The best way to deal with them is when people are making purchasing decisions and/or just trying to limit what gets into the environment through better management.