Contaminants of Emerging Concern

The health and safety of our community are the City’s top priority. That’s why drinking water, wastewater and surface water are closely monitored for any health or safety concerns. In addition to legal monitoring requirements, the City monitors and tests for contaminants of emerging concern, which is a term used to describe chemicals or other pollutants that may cause ecological or human health problems and are typically not yet regulated under current laws.

Drinking Water and Wastewater Testing for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a prominent topic of concern in today’s health and regulatory conversations.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in a variety of products since the 1950s. By 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that there were about 250 commercial and industrial products containing PFAS in use globally. PFAS are found in many consumer products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, water-resistant clothing, and food packaging. Industrial uses include lubricants, protective coatings, electroplating, and firefighting foam. PFAS compounds repel water and oil, remain chemically and thermally stable, and exhibit surfactant properties, which makes them useful for commercial and industrial applications.

Testing for these chemicals is already being performed on Bellingham’s drinking water and no detectable levels of PFAS have been found. The City has also been participating in state and self-sponsored PFAS waste stream monitoring since 2009, with minimal amounts of PFAS discovered in wastewater. It is important to note that the City’s wastewater treatment plant, the Post Point Resource Recovery Plant, does not generate PFAS; the PFAS detected in waste stream monitoring are carried in wastewater from residences and businesses.

The City’s accredited water quality laboratory produced a white paper (PDF) that discusses PFAS testing that has been completed through April 2023.

As part of Bellingham’s ongoing commitment to protecting public health and the environment, the City will continue PFAS sampling efforts following regulatory guidance. The science surrounding PFAS is advancing rapidly and there are many other actions and processes evolving:

  • Federal and state action plans are being published;
  • Source controls are being put in place; 
  • Regulatory limits are being put into effect;
  • Analytical methodologies that achieve lower detection levels are in development; and,
  • Treatment, mitigation and disposal options are being researched.

Monitoring for Other Contaminants in Wastewater

In the fall of 2021, the City completed additional testing for other contaminants of emerging concern at the wastewater treatment plant. The additional testing included Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), dioxins, and furans, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and microplastics. The testing did not detect any notable levels at this point in time; however, the City will continue to monitor as needed. A summary of the findings (PDF) and the full report (95MB PDF) are available for review.