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DNR Planning A Round Of PFAS Testing In Public Water Supplies Beginning In July

Kate Payne
Iowa Public Radio
The Iowa DNR is planning to test the water at 53 locations across the state for harmful PFAS compounds. Known as forever chemicals, the substances accumulate in the environment and in the human body, and have been linked with a range of health risks.

The Iowa DNR plans to test the water at more than 50 locations across the state for the substances known as forever chemicals. The class of compounds collectively called PFAS has been linked to an increased risk for a number of health concerns, including certain cancers, developmental and fertility issues, as well as kidney and liver complications.

The DNR plans to test for two PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, at 53 locations across the state beginning in July. This initial round of testing is focused on public water wells and other vulnerable sites near locations where the harmful compounds are thought to have been used.

The family of man-made chemicals includes thousands of compounds that have been used in a host of industrial settings for decades, as well as in consumer goods from cookware to clothing to carpet. Officials are increasingly detecting PFAS contamination in soil and water across the country, raising concerns about widespread and long-term exposure.

Matt Graesch of the DNR is one of the staffers working on the state’s sampling project. Using information from databases tracking pollution control and industrial regulation, Graesch identified roughly 1,100 locations in the state that are most likely to use or store PFAS on the property.

He then compared those locations to the state’s list of approximately 1,300 public drinking water wells that are considered “highly susceptible” to contamination, due to their relative depth or lack of protective layers underground that can impede contaminants.

Graesch spoke about the plan at a virtual meeting of the Iowa Groundwater Association Thursday.

“I drew a half a mile buffer around each of the PFAS locations and ran a query to figure out which of the active, highly susceptible public water supply wells were within a half a mile of a known or suspected PFAS location,” Graesch said.

The department came up with some 110 wells that fit those parameters; roughly 20 have been designated as the highest priority sites for the initial round of sampling. In addition, the department will sample 30 public surface water intakes, due to PFAS’ ability to travel extensively in surface water systems like rivers and streams, often getting whipped up into a visible foam of concentrated contaminants.

Screenshot from Iowa DNR presentation
The Iowa DNR used pollution control data to map suspected PFAS source sites and to choose testing locations among public wells and surface water intakes that have been deemed vulnerable to contamination.

The department will be taking samples from public water systems both before and after the water is treated, explained the DNR’s Claire Hruby, who also spoke at the IGA meeting Thursday.

“We’ve decided to look at both what's going out to the distribution system but also more closely at source water and untreated water in individual wells,” Hruby said.

Hruby hopes the sampling will also serve as a learning opportunity for local water system operators to become more familiar with PFAS. Protocols for sampling the compounds are very stringent in order to avoid cross contamination, with technicians directed to take extreme care in what they wear, eat and touch, down to avoiding the use of certain waterproof notebooks and felt tip pens, which may contain PFAS.

“We will be working with water operators to schedule sampling starting around July. And we're hoping to kind of use that opportunity to train folks in proper protocol for PFAS sampling while we're there,” Hruby said, “because we anticipate that they may be required to do more sampling for PFAS in the future, especially if we find something.”

Graesch hopes that the initial round of testing will help the department identify areas of concern and focus future sampling efforts on locations that need it most.

“Can we come up with a relatively simple way of figuring out which wells we need to sample first to collect enough data to guide future efforts rather than blanket sampling every well, just because of…we weren’t sure what we were going to find and it is expensive,” Graesch said.

PFAS sampling in Des Moines and Sioux City conducted on behalf of the Department of Defense and separate sampling by environmental groups have detected concerning levels of PFAS compounds in groundwater, surface water and drinking water.

According to a January 2020 report published by the Environmental Working Group, total PFAS levels of 109.8 ppt were detected in tap water in the Quad Cities, well above the U.S. EPA’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion or ppt for drinking water.

Still, PFAS testing in Iowa falls far short of the monitoring happening in nearby states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Minnesota has set its own recommended levels for certain PFAS compounds in drinking water, guidelines which while nonbinding are more strict than the EPA’s health advisory level. State officials there are considering more aggressively regulating the chemicals.

Michigan meanwhile has instituted its own statewide enforceable drinking water standards for some of the compounds.

The EPA is in the process of considering setting an enforceable maximum contaminant level or MCL for certain PFAS compounds, regulations which the nation’s public water systems would have to comply with. The agency’s current health advisory is not enforceable.