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Iowa DNR is testing more than 50 public water systems for 'forever chemicals' but no plans for private wells

A water tower in Marion, Ohio. The city has been gripped by heroin addition.
MADDIE MCGARVEY FOR NPR
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A water tower in Marion, Ohio.

Testing for "forever chemicals" is underway at public drinking water systems across Iowa, as the state Department of Natural Resources kicks off the process of monitoring for the substances known as PFAS in the drinking water of more than 50 cities. Still, the agency currently has no plans to test private wells, which researchers say are especially at risk.

For years, researchers and advocates have been raising the alarm about the class of human-made toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. Public interest and concern has increased across the country as testing has revealed stunning levels of contamination in some areas and as manufacturers like 3M have reached lucrative settlements with affected communities.

The DNR is now conducting an initial round of testing in public water systems from Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to Eldora, Spirit Lake, Spencer and Sergeant Bluff, according to a list of test sites obtained by Iowa Capitol Dispatch.

“People need to be aware of these compounds [...] We just have to have that communication and education so people can make informed decisions. Or start pushing for action. Because sometimes things won't happen until people push for it.”
-Dana Kolpin, research hydrologist, U.S. Geological Survey

Roger Bruner, who supervises the DNR’s Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Section and is helping oversee the testing, told IPR the substances are “ubiquitous."

“It’s been ubiquitous throughout the environment, right? Because it’s been so useful,” Bruner said. “Most people have used some amount of PFAS, whether it’s nonstick cookware, Scotchgard on their carpets or other fabrics.”

The chemicals have been widely used in industrial and consumer goods around the world for decades, and are linked to a slate of health issues, including increased risks for kidney and testicular cancer, high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women and other birth complications.

“We know these are particularly dangerous for pregnant women, young children, we’re talking about developmental issues,” said David Cwiertny, who directs the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa. “We know there's more and more health impacts being identified every day for this chemical class.”

DNR identified some 1,100 industrial sites that potentially use or store PFAS

According to Bruner, the department will take multiple samples at each site, testing both raw water (untreated) and finished water (what comes out of the tap) for 25 individual PFAS compounds (the total number of PFAS compounds number in the thousands). Results of the testing will be posted on the DNR’s website on a rolling basis, Bruner said.

The testing comes after DNR staffers identified some 1,100 industrial sites across the state that potentially use or store PFAS. Testing locations were chosen by mapping those potential sites against wells known to be susceptible to contamination. But Bruner says the DNR doesn’t definitively know if the sites have used PFAS because the department isn’t reaching out to them.

“We don’t have any idea if actually anyone is using PFAS in the state of Iowa, because it just isn’t tracked yet,” Bruner said. “EPA is working on that right now.”

Cwiertny questioned why the department didn’t do more research on the 1,100 sites to scrutinize patterns of PFAS usage before beginning the testing, which is technically complex and expensive.

“Obviously, if there's a place that is using, known to use these chemicals in high volumes, you might want to prioritize testing of water supplies around those types of locations. I don't know that that's been considered in the current approach,” Cwiertny said. “It seems like not a wise investment of resources to test near [locations that may not have used PFAS at all].”

"We don’t have any idea if actually anyone is using PFAS in the state of Iowa, because it just isn’t tracked yet. EPA is working on that right now.”
-Roger Bruner, Supervisor, Iowa DNR Water Quality Bureau

Researcher says Iowans deserve to know if they live near potential exposure site

Bruner told IPR he doesn’t know of any plans to release the list of potential sites to the public, which Cwiertny says undercuts independent researchers’ ability to conduct their own analysis and withholds information from residents seeking to gauge their potential risk.

“People need to be aware of these compounds,” said Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who along with Cwiertny and others recently published a study of ambient PFAS levels in rural Iowa streams. “We just have to have that communication and education so people can make informed decisions. Or start pushing for action. Because sometimes things won't happen until people push for it.”

Cwiertny says Iowans deserve to know if they’re living in a location where they may have been exposed.

“Community right to know is a foundational hallmark of things like environmental justice, where communities that are near industrial sites, if they're using hazardous chemicals, communities should be made aware. So they know that it might be a threat, not just what's in their water, but we also know these chemicals can volatilize through, say, incineration,” Cwiertny said.

Some states are strictly regulating the contaminant; last week the EPA announced a “PFAS Strategic Roadmap” which includes timelines for setting enforceable limits for the substances.

Private wells are 'falling through the cracks'

Kolpin says that Iowans who rely on private wells for their drinking water are especially at risk, because the systems are largely unregulated and don’t have to meet safety metrics that public systems do.

“Private wells are just falling through the cracks,” Kolpin. “They don't have to be sampled regularly for any sort of purposes.”

An estimated 10 percent of Iowans get their water from private wells. Bruner told IPR that the DNR currently has no plans to test private wells for PFAS.

“At this point there isn’t a plan,” Bruner said. “But this reconnaissance program we’re talking about will help inform future decisions along those lines.”

"How many years were they drinking that water unknown? And why aren't we doing more to find those people and help them as a state?"
-David Cwiertny, director of the UI Center of Health Effects of Environmental Contamination

Bruner said private well owners may be able to access PFAS testing through the Grants to Counties Program, which is administered by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Cwiertny says state regulators should be more proactive in monitoring for PFAS and educating residents and local officials about the potential risks. CHEEC, the center Cwiertny directs, has conducted testing for Iowans who rely on private wells and discovered that some residents were drinking water with PFAS levels well above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.

“They had no knowledge of it. We were the first to inform them and then we worked with them on getting an in-home reverse osmosis system so they had some way to manage it,” Cwiertny said of one family. “But how many years were they drinking that water unknown? And why aren't we doing more to find those people and help them as a state?”

Cwiertny says the longer it takes the state to gauge the potential for contamination and educate residents, the longer Iowans may be exposed.

“If we're not being proactive, there are people being exposed when they don't need to be,” Cwiertny said.