Tap water in Des Moines area, Quad-Cities had traces of toxic ‘forever chemicals’

By: - March 26, 2021 5:02 pm

American Rivers ranks the Raccoon River as the ninth-most-endangered in the country. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Tap water in the Des Moines area and in parts of eastern Iowa has had traces of toxic “forever chemicals” associated with cancer and other illnesses in the past couple of years, records show. 

The concentrations were far below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current voluntary health advisory for the so-called PFAS chemicals. That means, under current science, the levels found in Iowa water would not be considered to be a direct health threat. 

However, the science on the chemicals, which have been used to coat pans, pizza boxes, and clothing, is evolving. EPA is considering setting maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for a couple of the thousands of PFAS chemicals. The Biden administration has called for more monitoring.

In Iowa, a top water quality staffer said it’s difficult to know how big a problem the chemicals are here, because little testing has been done.

The PFAS chemicals have become a big issue in parts of the country, particularly where they are manufactured. Contamination of water near DuPont’s Teflon plant in West Virginia in 2001 was one of the early controversies. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists reported in a review of tap water and groundwater at 131 military sites that 87 had PFAS levels more than 100 times the health advisory level, and 43 others exceeded the federal advisory by less than that. Only one was within the health advisory. 

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources plans to test more than 50 spots around Iowa considered vulnerable to the pollution. And the federal Department of Defense is testing sites around Iowa after PFAS contamination was found at high levels in the groundwater at the air bases at the Des Moines and Sioux City airports. 

Des Moines Water Works officials said the high levels at the Des Moines airport Guard base most likely are from firefighting foam. The utility has found evidence the chemicals are running down Frink Creek and into the Raccoon River, a major source of drinking water. Frink Creek empties into the Raccoon upstream from where Water Works pumps water out of the river, said Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan. 

“We are being pretty aggressive on monitoring,” checking levels at least quarterly, Corrigan said. He also is asking military officials to develop a remediation plan for the Des Moines base and has appealed to Iowa’s congressional delegation for help.

Water Works serves about 500,000 people.

“Our perspective is that contamination should be kept out at the source,” Corrigan said. PFAS can be removed with treatment, most likely reverse osmosis, but that would be expensive, he added.

The chemicals have been used in waxes, paints, water repellents, firefighting foam, food packages and cleaning products. The substances have been found in fish and animals. Some of the chemicals can’t be manufactured in the United States but often are imported. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down and they accumulate in the body.

Health concerns

Research has associated the contaminants with cancers, low birth weights, immune system problems, and thyroid disruption, EPA reports

“We know this is a concern,” Corrigan said. “We are very aggressively testing to make sure it’s not a concern” in tap water, he added. 

EPA hasn’t set a formal legal limit for the chemicals. “Nobody is looking for it,” Corrigan said. 

EPA has set a health advisory for the chemicals of most concern at 70 parts per trillion. Iowa American Water, which serves the Quad Cities and Clinton Davenport, reported readings of 4.4 parts per trillion in 2019. Des Moines Water Works recorded a tap-water reading of “around 5 parts per trillion,” and is “starting to see traces” in shallow wells, Corrigan said. 

A spokeswoman for Iowa American did not immediately return a phone call Friday.

Other states are regulating PFAS

Michigan passed a law requiring cleanup of two PFAS chemicals if they are found at levels of at least 6 or 8 parts per trillion. Iowa lawmakers have not considered action this year.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers included money in his budget to fight PFAS. That included $10 million for testing and $1 million to collect and dispose of firefighting foam, which caused high PFAS levels at Dane County Airport, the Wisconsin Examiner reported.

States, some of them frustrated by EPA’s lack of action, have passed local laws or set regulations in Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Texas, Illinois, Alaska, Maine and Colorado. Iowa is one of 38 states with no regulations on PFAS.

Measures are under consideration in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, according to a review by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm in St. Louis, Missouri.

Corrigan, the Des Moines water official, said test methods now detect much smaller concentrations, and it’s hard to tell if the contamination is just more noticeable or is getting worse. The U.S. Navy says 1 part per trillion would be the equivalent of one drop of water in 500,000 barrels.

The chemicals have shown up in treated tap water, in the creek leading from the base and in the water in the utility’s shallow wells nearest to the air base, Corrigan said. 

The defense department has reported it is assessing sites at Des Moines, Sioux City, Boone, Johnston, Middletown, Waterloo, and Davenport, records show. 

Sioux City’s most recent annual water report did not mention PFAS contamination.

The governor-appointed Iowa Environmental Protection Commission discussed the issue March 16.

“Based on the information we have today, we don’t believe that PFAS will be as big an issue in Iowa as it is in some parts of the country, the department takes this as a very serious issue,” Roger Bruner, supervisor of state water monitoring staff at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told commission members. 

DNR: “We really don’t know”

The state currently is working “to identify and minimize exposure of Iowans to PFAS in public drinking water supplies,” part of a state action plan compiled early last year. 

“This project is considered to be a reconnaissance project so we can evaluate the magnitude of the issue in Iowa, since we don’t really know” how extensive the pollution is, Bruner said. 

The state will come up with a methodology for testing and certification of labs. New testing is planned to begin in July. First up will be systems with shallow wells that would be most likely to have PFAS contamination.

Bruner said there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, but only a “handful” that are significant  threats to human health and the environment. They repel water and oil and are persistent, making them effective for water-proofing fabrics and coating pans, pizza boxes and microwave-popcorn bags. 

In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to develop regulations for two of the PFAS chemicals found in drinking water, and pursue monitoring of drinking water systems to track 29 of the chemicals. 

A previous monitoring of six PFAS chemicals from 2013 to 2015 found none of them in public water supplies in Iowa, Bruner said. But the health advisory levels have tightened since then. And there has been little testing.

Customers would be notified if the health advisory is violated by a public water supply. At that point, additional monitoring would be required, Bruner said. 

“More recently, problems have been reported associated with long-term exposures of workers in industrial settings,” Bruner said. “This has sparked a lot of research.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers PFAS chemicals are considered an “emerging concern,” Bruner said. “The science is developing very rapidly,” he said. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.