Central City water has ‘forever chemicals’ near danger threshold

By: - March 11, 2022 5:33 pm

A faucet dispensing water. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

A small eastern Iowa town has concentrations of toxic chemicals in its drinking water that exceed safety thresholds in other states and that are the highest so far identified by a new state surveillance program.

The treated water of Central City, a town of about 1,300 north of Cedar Rapids, has perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” because they persist indefinitely in the environment — of a combined concentration of 61 parts per trillion, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

That test result was for the two most-studied PFAS and is more than double the highest concentration previously detected by the tests in Iowa. It approaches the current federal safety guideline of 70 parts per trillion.

It has also triggered a more thorough review by the DNR’s Contaminated Sites Section.


“Have there been train derailments? Any use of firefighting foam?” said Corey McCoid, supervisor of the DNR’s Water Supply Operations Section. “It’s just to try to track down what may be some of the possible sources and whether that warrants further investigation.”

Studies have shown that PFAS — used to make non-stick and stain-resistant products, among others — can accumulate in people’s bodies over time and are tied to a number of ailments, including cancers, liver damage, immunodeficiencies and abnormal infant and childhood development, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

McCoid said it’s DNR protocol to conduct such a review if PFAS is found in concentrations of 40 parts per trillion or more, which was the case with the initial Feb. 7 tests of Central City’s water.

The DNR conducted follow-up tests this week in order to get a more complete picture of the situation, and soil tests and groundwater monitoring could follow.

The DNR initially tested raw water and finished drinking water from one of the city’s two wells. The contaminated well lies near the Wapsipinicon River and is relatively shallow at about 104 feet deep.

The well is within a mile of the site of a massive fire more than five years ago at a recycling business, Iowa Gold Distributing. Trevyn Cunningham, public works director for Central City, said firefighters are believed to have used PFAS-containing foam to extinguish the blaze.

McCoid said a train derailment in the area and an unspecified manufacturing facility might also have contributed.

The DNR took samples this week of finished drinking water, raw water from the already-tested well and raw water from the newer well that is on the other side of town and is far deeper at 362 feet. McCoid said the newer well likely lacks the same level of contamination and could be used as the primary source of drinking water, or water from the two wells could be blended to reduce the overall contamination.

Cunningham said the wells have typically been used separately on alternating days unless water demand requires them to operate in tandem.

Central City posted a “PFAS Informational Report” to its website Friday that did not acknowledge the extent of contamination of its water. It merely indicated the tests of its water “showed a level below the EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion.”

The EPA’s health advisory is a non-enforceable guideline. The agency is currently reviewing that guideline and whether it should set enforceable maximum contaminant levels for PFAS in drinking water.


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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.