Blog

Forever Chemicals in Drinking Water: An Emerging Health Threat

Grace Kann
PFAS pollution in Iowa

Forever chemicals, also known as PFAS (for "per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances"), are considered dangerous because they have potentially harmful health implications – but we can’t smell, taste, or see them.

PFAS are human-made compounds used to create materials that are resistant to water, grease and oil. PFAS can be found in non-stick cookware, food containers, carpeting, clothing, makeup, firefighting foam, biosolids on farms, and more. During production and use, these compounds make their way into the soil, water and air. These extremely stable compounds persist in the environment for long periods of time – hence the name “forever chemicals.” It may come as no surprise that scientists have recently found these substances in living animals, in food, and in human blood.

PFAS are newer compounds, so their structures and functions are not fully understood quite yet. Since the scientific profile on PFAS is not yet complete, more research needs to be conducted in order to comprehend the full dangers of PFAS. Even though PFAS aren’t fully understood, with the research that has been completed so far, scientists believe that ingesting PFAS through drinking water may increase a person's chances of developing health problems such as thyroid disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, reduced immune response, and cancer.

Even though PFAS aren’t fully understood, with the research that has been completed so far, scientists believe that ingesting PFAS through drinking water may increase a person's chances of developing health problems such as thyroid disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, reduced immune response, and cancer.

PFAS have infiltrated our surface water and groundwater; therefore, our drinking water has been compromised by these compounds. Waterkeepers across the country have found at least one type of PFAS in 83 percent of the streams tested. High concentrations of PFAS are being found across the Midwest and especially in Iowa.

Many of these contaminated water bodies are used for recreation or flow into drinking water sources, so they are of major concern for public health. Earlier this year, EPA lowered the health advisory threshold levels for Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), two types of PFAS. The threshold was lowered from 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for both substances to 0.004 ppt for PFOS and 0.002 ppt for PFOA. At the beginning of November, Sioux City’s drinking water had 4.4 ppt of PFOS and 5.7 ppt of PFOA, exceeding the new health guidelines. Unfortunately, more than a dozen sites in Iowa, including around my hometown of Dubuque, are above the health advisory level for PFAS in water sources. Although cities are taking this problem seriously, they are also waiting on EPA’s final federal regulation before taking action.

The state DNR tested PFAS levels throughout Iowa. On the map above, green indicates no detectable PFAS, orange indicates levels safely below the health advisory limit, and red indicates areas that have exceeded the health advisory threshold. Explore a nationwide PFAS contamination map.

So what does this mean for the Save Our Streams volunteer scientists? Unfortunately, at this time, PFAS can only be tested for with EPA-approved, state-of-the-science methods. This means that the monitoring and testing process is too complex to be completed streamside like other Save Our Streams activities – plus, the monitoring process is very expensive. If you are interested in testing your water for PFAS, EPA recommends that you contact your state to learn if they have state-certified laboratories that can test for PFAS. For drinking water, EPA recommends using their own validated testing methods. In the meantime, Izaak Walton League staff are keeping their eyes on the issue. As PFAS testing resources become available, we will add them to the list below.

Stay up to date on all things clean water at the Izaak Walton League of America


PFAS Water Testing Resources


Citations

Grace Kann is a student at Cornell College and is the 2022 Save Our Streams intern.