The Des Moines Water Works plans to do more testing for toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, after high levels were detected at a nearby military base. Groundwater contamination at the Iowa Air National Guard base in Des Moines is nearly 200 times the federal government’s health advisory, according to a recently published military analysis obtained by Iowa Public Radio.
Des Moines Water Works officials don’t think toxic chemicals known as PFAS are ending up in finished water that flows through customers’ taps. That’s based on past testing done in 2014 and 2015, in coordination with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But it’s hard to say definitively, because the utility doesn’t routinely screen for PFAS, and hasn’t done any testing for the chemicals since it participated in the voluntary study a few years ago.
A DNR official has said he’s “confident” the state’s public drinking water systems are safe, based on that previous testing, which including 57 water systems, and detected no PFAS.
“Based on the information we’ve got, we feel that the actual risk to drinking water is pretty minimal in Iowa,” said Roger Bruner, a water monitoring supervisor with the DNR.
Des Moines Water Works Chief Operating Officer Ted Corrigan says in past years the utility has not had significant reason to be concerned about PFAS exposure. But after reviewing the recently-published testing results from the Des Moines ANG base, he says more testing is needed.
“Now that we know that it’s there, it’s something we need to take a closer look at and do some additional sampling,” Corrigan said. “We’ll need to give that a little thought and decide exactly what that looks like.”
Military analysts found high levels of surface water and groundwater contamination at the Des Moines base, and suspect the contamination is moving off site, though it’s not yet known how far the plume could extend. The DNR has reviewed the military analysis and is requesting the Air National Guard conduct further testing at the base to determine the scope of the plume.
The chemicals are thought to be from the use of firefighting foams, which have been routinely used for decades at military installations, municipal airports, fire training centers and certain industrial sites. PFAS is perhaps best known for its use in the nonstick product Teflon, but shows up in a range of consumer goods like food wrappers, cleaning products and textiles.
Exposure to the chemicals has been linked serious health conditions, including increased risks of certain cancers, immune issues, hormone disruption, fertility problems, and pre-eclampsia, which can be deadly for pregnant women.
Corrigan says the DNR had not notified the Des Moines Water Works that testing was conducted at the base in the area, or that results had been published.
“I certainly think we should have been made aware of it at some point in the process here, now that the report is final,” Corrigan said. “We’ll work with the DNR to stay in the loop, to make sure they keep us informed.”
Now that he’s reviewed the report, Corrigan says it’s “prudent” for the utility to give PFAS a closer look, and says he’ll be following future testing done at the base.
“It’s something that we’ll take a closer look at and we will do some additional sampling and monitoring, if for no other reason, just out of an abundance of caution,” Corrigan said. “I’m hopeful the Air National Guard will move forward with the recommended next step in the process and do some additional testing and monitoring.”
Public water systems in Iowa don’t have to test for the chemicals because there are no legally enforceable standards at the state or federal level. The same chemicals have also been detected at the Iowa Air National Guard Base in Sioux City, where military analysts and DNR officials suspect contamination could be reaching private drinking wells off site.