Scientists find ‘forever chemicals’ near Iowa airport, push for widespread testing

by Perry Beeman

A team of University of Iowa scientists has found toxic “forever chemicals” in private wells near the Cedar Rapids airport and expects to find them across the state.

The state isn’t doing enough to respond to the threats of widely used PFAS chemicals, said David Cwiertny, director of the Center for the Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) at the University of Iowa.

“They are used extensively in industry and commerce. We know they don’t get removed in wastewater treatment, so they are discharged into the environment. They don’t go away. They’re very persistent. We’re going to find them,” Cwiertny said in an interview. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on a legal limit for a couple of the 5,000 or so PFAS chemicals, which do not break down. The chemicals are found in airport firefighting foam, food packaging, carpet, dental floss, cookware, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products, waterproof clothing, and other products. Some studies have associated the chemicals with cancers and other illnesses and conditions.

When CHEEC decided to check 20 rural wells near the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, 14 wells south and east of the airport had PFAS contamination.

One well had PFAS chemicals above the health advisory. CHEEC gave that family a reverse osmosis system. Tests did not show the source of the PFAS contamination.

CHEEC also tested wells near the Fort Dodge airport. None of those tests detected PFAS chemicals.

The center plans to check near other airports and sewage treatment plants. Cwiertny said PFAS chemicals generally aren’t removed by wastewater treatment, which could mean river pollution. He also is concerned about the longtime practice of applying sludge from sewage treatment plants to farm fields.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has identified nearly 1,100 sites in Iowa where PFAS chemicals likely were used or stored. The agency has been developing plans for a couple of years to test about 50 sites, or about 4.5% of the total, that seem particularly vulnerable. That testing is expected to begin this summer.

Cwiertny said that is a less than satisfactory response to a serious environmental threat.

“I think we need to do more monitoring,” Cwiertny said. “The 50 sites to start with as high priority is far too small.”

“We have 1,100 sites where the chemicals were stored or used. I think we need to be looking at private wells within a radius and thinking about municipal supplies. I think we should be working with (county) sanitarians in those areas to notify people about testing,” Cwiertny said.

Iowa DNR officials did not respond to questions submitted Wednesday. 

Already, federal tests found high levels of PFAS chemicals at the Iowa National Guard bases at the Des Moines and Sioux City airports. The contaminants have shown up in tap water at Des Moines Water Works and in the Quad-Cities, served by Iowa American Water Co. 

Wisconsin and Minnesota have both done major testing and have found widespread contamination, Cwiertny said. 

There hasn’t been enough monitoring to determine how much of a threat these industrial and manufacturing chemicals are in Iowa, he added. Some states, including Michigan and North Carolina, have significant issues with PFAS chemicals, he added. 

Iowa is among the states with no local limits or guidelines on PFAS chemicals. But 11 states have their own, many of them far stricter than EPA’s. 

Pam Hinman, marketing and communications director at Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, said the airport worked with CHEEC and Linn County Public Health to test wells in the area beginning in 2019. One property had a well reading of 133 parts per trillion for PFAS, nearly double the level the federal government considers safe. 

Eastern Iowa Airport Director Marty Lenss said he soon will ask the airport board to approve sampling on the airport grounds. Those tests are expected to be conducted this year.

“We really believe that by getting a better handle on it, by doing well monitoring, we will be in a much better position once the regulatory environment settles down,” Lenss said. 

Des Moines hot spot

Des Moines International Airport regularly checks for PFAS and other contamination where water runs off the property, Executive Director Kevin Foley said. So far, only the area near the guard base has shown PFAS in water samples.

Maj. Katherine Headley of the Iowa National Guard said the remedial investigation requested by Des Moines Water Works has not been scheduled. The U.S. Air Force is planning projects nationally, and will schedule investigations at Des Moines and Sioux City when priorities are set. 

“The Iowa National Guard is as concerned about this issue as anyone and is working with our partners, both state and federal, to protect human health and ensure safe drinking water for our communities,” Headley said. 

U.S. Geological Survey check of 25 U.S. drinking water sources found PFAS in every sample of source water and tap water checked. Concentrations ranged from 1 part per trillion to 1,102 parts per trillion. One facility exceeded the federal health advisory. 

EPA has a voluntary health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. But some government scientists have suggested that a formal limit as low as 0.1 part per trillion should be set. All of the Cedar Rapids samples pulled by CHEEC had PFAS at more than 0.1 part per trillion.

Water plants could use activated carbon or reverse osmosis to remove the chemicals, but that is expected to be expensive.

Consumer Reports study

A new study by Consumer Reports found 35% of water samples pulled by 120 volunteers around the country exceeded EPA’s health advisory for PFAS. Nearly all samples had some level of the chemicals. 

Tests commissioned by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group in 2020 found PFAS in the Quad-Cities water supply well above the EPA health advisory level. The reading of 109.8 parts per trillion, compared with the health target of 70 parts per trillion or below, was the second-highest level in the 31 states where the organization’s consultants found PFAS. 

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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