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Here’s what you need to know about ‘forever chemicals’ in Iowa
Learn how Iowa is combating PFAS chemicals — and how you can help keep your water safer.
Josh Rodriguez has worked as a territory manager for Culligan of Marion, a water-treatment equipment supplier, for 25 years.
In the last six years, a new concern has cropped up among his customers: chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
Rodriguez said he has responded to as much as a dozen such calls over the past year, particularly from customers around Central City and The Eastern Iowa Airport, where the chemicals have been detected in drinking water supplies.
“It is something that's becoming more and more common to hear customers asking about,” he said. “They just ask if we have any kind of treatment for PFAS, if there's anything they can do to filter it out of the water.”
Federal and state agencies have struggled to keep up with what scientists are learning about PFAS — which is that the chemicals are pervasive, persistent and harmful.
Here’s what we know about the “forever chemicals,” how Iowa is combating them and what you can do to help keep your drinking water safe.
What are PFAS?
PFAS refers to a group of thousands of human-made chemicals that have been used to make materials resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water since the 1930s.
You can find them in common products like non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothes, cleaning supplies, food packaging and adhesives. Although two of the most studied types of PFAS — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) — are no longer produced in the United States, other varieties are still used across manufacturing and industrial sectors.
They’re often called “forever chemicals” because their molecular structures are made of strong bonds, so they don’t degrade easily. That allows them to build up and persist over time.
PFAS can end up in the environment through several avenues. They’re in treated leachate — the water that percolates through landfills and leaches contaminants — and industrial wastewater that is discharged into waterways. They’re in the sewage waste often applied to fields, where they can infiltrate groundwater. They’re in some firefighting foams that were widely used for decades. A 2021 study found evidence of the chemicals in a third of sampled waterways in Iowa.
“They are basically in our soil. They're in our water. They're in the air,” said Corey McCoid, the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s PFAS coordinator. “It's across all media when it comes to the environment.”
Humans can be exposed to PFAS through their drinking water, food, consumer products and surroundings. A recent study found eating one freshwater fish could equal a month of drinking PFAS-contaminated water. Long-term exposure is linked to myriad negative health impacts, including cancer risks, reproductive effects, child development, hormones, immune systems and cholesterol levels.
Research on PFAS and their health effects still is evolving, said David Cwiertny, director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa. Much of that information comes from studying communities near PFAS manufacturers. Iowa hasn’t conducted that level of study yet.
“We don't have — that we know of yet — some of the levels of contamination that you might have, say, in Michigan,” Cwiertny said, referencing PFAS contamination from shoe manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide. “What we know is it’s dangerous down to very low levels.”
Are PFAS regulated?
The short answer is: Federal regulations are in the works, and the Iowa DNR is planning to follow suit.
The Environmental Protection Agency set a health advisory — a non-enforceable threshold at which a drinking water contaminant is deemed harmful — at 70 parts per trillion for both PFOA and PFOS in 2016. Last summer, that advisory was adjusted to near-zero levels: 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS. The EPA also added health advisories for two more types of PFAS that often replace PFOA and PFOS in manufacturing.
“To give you an example, 1 part per trillion … is one second in 32,000 years, or one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” McCoid said. “It’s very small amounts that we're talking about, which makes it hard to analyze.”
No labs can detect such low PFAS levels, which could complicate matters if the thresholds in the health advisories graduate to enforceable regulations. The EPA promised to announce such regulations for PFOA and PFOS by the end of 2022. That announcement has been delayed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for internal review, McCoid said.
Ideally, drinking water would be free of all contaminants. But that would take advanced technology and heaps of money — which aren’t available to most communities. The EPA must create a level that takes those restraints into account in order to be realistically enforceable, Cwiertny said. That’s why he doubts the regulation will be as strict as the health advisories.
“We've always had some levels of chemicals in our water that we are willing to accept because it is not technologically or economically feasible to get rid of all of them,” he said. “Everything about our standards of drinking water is dealing with acceptable levels of risk. There’s no risk-free drinking water.”
Several states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, have established their own maximum contaminant limits for PFAS. Others, including Iowa, will be following the EPA’s lead.
“We don't have the capabilities to do that in the state of Iowa because that's not the way we're built. That’s the EPA’s job, and our job is to implement what they create for standards,” McCoid said. “It takes a ton of research and staff time.”
How is Iowa tackling PFAS?
PFAS contamination wasn’t discovered in Iowa until around 2019, when contamination was detected at two Iowa Air National Guard bases in Des Moines and Sioux City.
By January 2020, the Iowa DNR published its PFAS Action Plan — a document outlining the department’s initial steps for tackling the emerging contaminant. Its dominant focus? Uncovering any contamination in drinking water.
To start, the Iowa DNR created a sampling plan that split public water suppliers into tiers based on how susceptible their wells were to PFAS contamination. Vulnerability largely depends on the type and thickness of geological layers surrounding an aquifer.
The department also compared well locations to a list of potential PFAS users in Iowa, which The Gazette obtained through a public records request.
The EPA has listed certain industries — like those involving textiles, paper and metal finishing — as more likely to use PFAS in their operations. The Iowa DNR narrowed down facilities in those industries based on their identification on federal tax statements. However, the list does not include all potential PFAS sites in Iowa, nor does it mean the included facilities actually use the chemicals.
“It is likely that a significant percentage of the facilities on the list do not and have never used PFAS, but they simply are in a sector of industry that has been known to use PFAS chemicals,” said Matthew Graesch, an environmental specialist in the Iowa DNR’s solid waste and contaminated sites section. “It is, and was, the best information available in the public domain.”
Without any federal or state regulations in place for monitoring PFAS in wastewater discharges, the Iowa DNR doesn’t have the authority to sample those potential sites to see if they’re actually using the chemicals. A federal PFAS discharge limit still is being developed, along with guidance on how to properly destroy and dispose of the chemicals.
The Iowa DNR may update its action plan depending on the EPA’s forthcoming maximum contaminant level for drinking water, McCoid said. It also will likely be releasing a summary of its sampling results from its top three most susceptible tiers of public water suppliers in February.
What has PFAS sampling revealed in Iowa?
To date, the Iowa DNR has sampled for PFAS in treated drinking water at 130 public water suppliers — more than once for some.
Sampling began in October 2020 for the top two most susceptible tiers, consisting of 68 public water suppliers, 178 sites and about 4,300 samples. When sampling ended the following February, PFAS had been detected in around 20 percent of the samples.
Last February, the Iowa DNR found “very low” but detectable levels of PFAS in water going into Cedar Rapids’ drinking water treatment plant. Only one type of the compounds — PFBA, which doesn’t currently have a health advisory — was detected at trace amounts in the treated water leaving the plant. City water remains safe to drink, officials previously told The Gazette.
The Iowa DNR is now finishing sampling its third most vulnerable tier of 48 additional public water suppliers, along with repeat sampling for certain sites. The department still is waiting on results from one facility. Three water supplies have had detections so far.
In total, contamination of PFAS chemicals with health advisories has been detected in the following treated public water supplies in Iowa, based on data from the Iowa DNR’s PFAS sampling portal:
- Ames Water Treatment Plant
- Burlington Municipal Waterworks
- Camanche Water Supply
- Central City Water Supply
- Dubuque Water Works
- Iowa American Water in Davenport
- Kammerer Mobile Home Park in Muscatine
- Muscatine Power and Water
- Peteschs Mobile Home Park in Bellevue
- Sioux City Water Supply
- Tama Water Supply
Each facility with a PFAS detection higher than an EPA health advisory was required to alert the public. About 20 water suppliers continue to monitor their water for PFAS on a quarterly basis. Several of the contaminated locations have since taken vulnerable wells offline or blended water from several wells to dilute the contamination, McCoid said.
Central City, for instance, has stopped using its second drinking water well since the Iowa DNR announced PFAS detections last year — which resulted in a public panic, Mayor Adam Griggs said in a statement to The Gazette. The city is now relying on one well and is working to get a new second well. It will plug and cap the contaminated well, as continued monitoring has showed no changes in PFAS content.
“Things have calmed down now because we were lucky in that our second well was clean,” Griggs said. “Getting a clean backup well online is our biggest priority now.”
Other public water suppliers with PFAS detections can’t confidently move forward with solutions until the EPA releases its maximum contaminant level, McCoid said.
“They don't know what that new limit’s going to be, so they can't really make plans,” he said. “Right now, it's kind of in limbo.”
A fourth round of sampling starting around March 2022 will include approximately 40 facilities, McCoid said. The EPA also will be conducting nationwide sampling for 30 unregulated contaminants — including various PFAS — at public water supplies until 2025. Starting this month, about 50 facilities will be sampled in Iowa.
How can you protect yourself against PFAS?
There are several technology-based treatments that can help.
Some, like reverse osmosis and carbon filtration, push the liquid through media that filter out the chemicals. A process called ion exchange uses positively charged substances to attract and remove negatively charged PFAS. Companies can install such water treatment equipment in homes.
“It's just peace of mind knowing that if there's anything in the water, it’s going to get reduced down going through that drinking system,” said Rodriguez, of Culligan of Marion. He said such services can cost between $100 and several thousand dollars.
Even simple solutions, like Brita-compatible PFAS filters, can be effective, McCoid said: “If a citizen is concerned, there are treatment options available.” The EPA does not recommend buying bottled water as a substitute, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no established standards for PFAS levels in the products.
Iowa residents drawing their water from private wells — which are unregulated under the Clean Water Act and were not included in the Iowa DNR’s statewide sampling — should regularly test for any PFAS contamination, which could be subsidized through the Grants to Counties Program.
Among the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination’s several PFAS-related projects, it recently detected the chemicals in several wells around The Eastern Iowa Airport, including one detection above the EPA’s prior health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. “In my estimation, it's still the only water consumer in Iowa that's been above the old health advisory,” Cwiertny said.
The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law allocated more than $100 million to Iowa for its drinking water and clean water state revolving funds, including at least $12 million specifically dedicated to emerging contaminants like PFAS.
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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