Local, state and federal officials have formed a working group to address Iowa’s PFAS contamination and any impacts to drinking water. Iowa is one of a number of states to grapple with the chemicals used at military bases and manufacturing sites.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS have been linked to some cancers, hormonal imbalances and pregnancy complications, and may even reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
PFAS refers to a class of thousands of individual compounds which are used in a slate of household products from dental floss to cooking pans to shoes, pose a particular threat when they wind up in drinking water. The U.S. military has found high levels of PFAS contamination in the surface water and groundwater at the Air National Guard bases in Sioux City and Des Moines, where the chemicals were used in special firefighting foams.
Despite the contamination, the chemicals haven’t been found in Iowa tap water. But because the substances aren’t formally regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, local governments in Iowa don’t have to screen for PFAS, which experts say raises questions about the full extent of potential exposure.
With the formation of the working group, officials may get a better understanding of the scope of the impacts in Iowa, and be able to address the state’s contamination more proactively.
The team includes representatives from the Des Moines Water Works, the Des Moines Airport Authority, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the 132nd Wing of the Iowa Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air National Guard.
Local representatives from Sioux City, which also has PFAS contamination at an area military base, have not been a part of the working group.
With the support of the working group, Des Moines Water Works is planning more groundwater testing for PFAS, says the agency’s Ted Corrigan.
“From our perspective it’s very positive that we’re not seeing these contaminants in the finished drinking water. That’s a good thing,” Corrigan said. “But we don’t want to wait until we start seeing them in the finished drinking water to do something about it.”
The Des Moines Water Works serves some 500,000 customers across Central Iowa.
Testing conducted for the U.S. Air National Guard found the levels of the two best-known PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, in the groundwater in Sioux City were 8,610 parts per trillion at one hot spot. The highest PFOS + PFOA levels detected in Des Moines were 13,490 ppt, nearly 200 times the EPA’s health advisory. The federal government recommends PFOS + PFOA should not exceed 70 parts per trillion in drinking water.
More recent evaluations by the CDC recommend the safe level in drinking water should be much lower, at less than 20 ppt of PFOS + PFOA.
Rolf Osteraas is the environmental manager at the Des Moines base, and a member of the PFAS working group. He says Iowa officials should be more proactive in protecting drinking water from PFAS.
“I live in Des Moines. I want to keep it that way and I think my commander and my leadership on our side feels that way too. So we want to stay out ahead of it to keep track of any changes to the current situation,” Osteraas said. “What we don’t want to have happen is, is being passive and all of a sudden have an impact to our community water supply.”
Colonel Mark Chidley, the Wing Commander of the Iowa Air National Guard Base in Des Moines, says at this point the situation there seems stable.
“I live less than two miles from the base. I’ve lived in the city of Des Moines for over 20 years. My only indicator of health advisory is what the drinking water is and there’s none in our drinking water right now,” Chidley said.
“At the local level with this working group we are going above and beyond [what’s required],” he added.
More testing is also underway near the base in Sioux City, to determine if contamination has reached public or private wells in the area.