Noxious chemical taints water in wells in 3 Iowa communities
Neither the scope of the contamination nor its origin has been
Register Staff Writer
A toxic chemical commonly used in rocket fuel has somehow seeped into
drinking-water wells in three Iowa communities, threatening residents'
thyroids and peace of mind.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators haven't pinned down
how widespread the perchlorate contamination is in:
* Hills, a town of 679 residents south of Iowa City.
* Napier, an unincorporated community west of Ames.
* Ewart, a settlement west of Montezuma, in east-central Iowa.
Investigators have no clue where the Iowa perchlorate came from.
Vivian Knebel, 76, of Hills started buying bottled water months ago
when EPA tests showed that the perchlorate in her well had jumped sharply.
"I've always had my water checked, but they've never found anything
before," said Knebel, who has used water from the well for 56 years.
Now, something has turned up in Knebel's water and in a wide swath of
Perchlorate has become a huge environmental issue nationwide. It is
toxic, disrupts hormones, damages thyroid glands and can stymie infants'
brain development. In addition to rocket fuel, it is used in fireworks,
munitions, limited fertilizers and other industries.
Federal workers found such high concentrations in Hills that they'll
be offering bottled water to 20 or so families. They plan a large round of
follow-up tests at Hills, along with at least modest testing of wells at
Napier and Ewart, said Jeff Field of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's Kansas City, Kan., water-quality division.
The EPA checked 179 spots in Iowa for perchlorate as part of a
national survey in 2001. All but the three came up clean. Federal
investigators also have found perchlorate in soil and water in 21 other
states, just in the past few years.
The federal government doesn't even regulate perchlorate. But it has
been working on possible limits. The National Academy of Sciences is helping
review research. Those studies have shown that extremely small doses - a
fraction of the loads coming from taps in parts of Hills - can cause health
Iowa water systems don't have to test for perchlorate regularly
because the EPA hasn't yet set limits like it has for lead and other
health-threatening water pollutants. Worse, many typical water treatment
techniques won't remove the chemical.
Federal environmental regulators said perchlorate is so expensive and
difficult to remove, it's usually cheaper for residents to hook their homes
up to a municipal water system instead.
With mounting evidence that the contaminant will be found in dangerous
amounts across the country, water-system workers expect federal standards
"I think it will become a regulated contaminant," said L.D. McMullen,
Des Moines Water Works general manager and a key player in federal
The Des Moines Water Works checked its system in the last year and
found no perchlorate. The taps in Cedar Rapids, Clinton and Davenport came
up clean in separate samplings in the past few years.
The issue came up mostly because of California, which has one of the
worst pools. That state has found perchlorate in 332 drinking-water sources
belonging to 84 public water systems in 10 counties. The state has the
nation's only perchlorate limit: 4 parts per billion.
Federal regulators are pushing for cleanups if readings hit between 4
and 18 parts per billion. There is talk of a federal drinking-water standard
of 4 parts per billion or less, maybe even 1 part per billion.
Readings in Hills drinking-water wells have ranged as high as 50 parts
per billion, and a probe found 90 in underground water.
The Ewart well had 29 parts per billion; Napier, 11.
Knebel, the Hills resident, isn't the worrying type. But spiraling
perchlorate readings at her home sent her to the bottled-water shelves.
Readings had jumped to 39 parts per billion from 28.
Knebel hasn't had any health problems. "I worry more about the
families with small children," she said.
The EPA's crew has asked for help in finding the source of the
pollution. Knebel said her only guess is the railroad line that used to send
trains through on the way to the Montezuma area.
The 2001 EPA sampling turned up one contaminated well in Hills, said
EPA project manager Dan Garvey. The next year, the EPA found three more
families' homes had significant perchlorate pollution. This year,
investigators tested wells at 35 homes and businesses in Hills; 22 of them
had perchlorate contamination.
All of Hills' 680 residents drink water from individual private wells.
About 20 families will get bottled water, as will at least one business -
the 115-employee Stutsman Inc., an agricultural supply firm, said Garvey.
Those are the spots where the concentrations were highest.
Napier residents all drink from a community water system that goes
back decades, said Ken Roe, 79, who helps run the system.
Roe has lived in Napier for 56 years. He has never seen any trouble.
He didn't receive a notice about perchlorate.
He suspects the well was out of town, but EPA staffers insist it was
at a private home in Napier.
"Perchlorate is not in Napier's municipal water supply," said EPA
spokeswoman Belinda Young.
An analysis of federal and state records by the nonprofit
Environmental Working Group, called "Rocket Science," lists the Napier
location as a "monitoring well," suggesting that the water wasn't pulled
Roe's wife, Ann, has a thyroid illness. Ken Roe said he doubts the
water is to blame. He has no clue where the pollution came from. He mentions
separate trains that used to service the local grain elevator and carry
passengers around the Ames area as possibilities, although slim ones.
Roe wonders how the EPA's perchlorate SWAT team managed to come to his
small community without him hearing about it. Especially when he runs the
"It kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?" Roe asked.
It seems unlikely that perchlorate is widespread in Iowa, which is not
known for rocket fuel and has had few ammunition operations.
Three years ago, the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory tested
water from 289 Iowa public water systems and didn't find any perchlorate,
said lab water-quality expert Richard Kelley. The lab has been running
samples for the past couple of years from Missouri and Nebraska and has
found only one contaminated well, in North Platte, Neb.
Kelley said perchlorate is so dangerous that his lab stopped using it
to prepare samples for analysis, a common use of the compound. The stuff was
crystallizing on a hood vent, where it was in danger of exploding.
For now, the EPA plans more extensive testing in Hills in the next two