Tests for ‘forever chemicals’ in Iowa drinking water to start soon

Federal officials announce testing requirements for manufacturers

By: - October 18, 2021 4:40 pm

State officials are poised to begin limited testing of municipal drinking water sources for toxic PFAS chemicals. (Photo by engin akyurt via Unsplash))

State officials are poised to begin limited testing of municipal drinking water sources for a group of toxic chemicals that can accumulate in residents’ bodies and cause cancers and other health problems.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — more commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” — are used in a variety of products for their abilities to resist heat, grease and water, among other substances. Their chemical bonds are so strong that scientists have been unable to estimate how long it takes for them to break down in the environment, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health.

More than 95% of U.S. residents are believed to have detectable amounts of the chemicals in their bodies, according to studies

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources plans to start testing drinking water in the coming weeks, starting in central Iowa, said Roger Bruner, the supervisor of the department’s water quality program.

“Overall, on a statewide basis, the risk is very low,” Bruner said of the potential for significant water contamination in Iowa. “We’ll just have to wait and see what the results show.”

The department released its PFAS action plan nearly two years ago as public concern about the chemicals has grown in the past two decades. Thousands of West Virginians sued DuPont in 2001 for contaminating their drinking water with a chemical it used to make Teflon, which resulted in a $670 million settlement. More recently, firefighters and cities in other states have sued companies that manufacture firefighting foams with PFAS for contaminating groundwater and for the firefighters’ exposure to the chemicals.

Iowa first tested drinking water in certain cities for PFAS and other unregulated contaminants as part of a federal monitoring program from 2013 to 2015, according to the DNR. Those tests found no significant contaminations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since reduced its health advisory levels of PFAS in drinking water to 70 parts per trillion. The agency previously advised that concentrations of up to 400 parts per trillion were acceptable.

On Monday, the agency announced it will soon require products such as nonstick cooking pans and stain-resistant furniture and clothing to be tested for PFAS. The agency also plans to expand research into the chemicals, set enforceable limits to PFAS concentrations in drinking water and help expedite the mitigation of contaminations.

Michael Regan is administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Screenshot of U.S. Senate hearing)

“These actions are critical, but they are not enough,” said Michael Regan, the agency’s administrator. “So many communities have been let down before, time and time again.”

Bruner said a two-person team from the state DNR will sample municipal drinking water sources as soon as next week and is expected to continue the sampling until the end of this year. It’s unclear when the results of those tests will be publicly available.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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