PFAS Chemicals

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl substances, are human-made chemicals that have been used for over 70 years in products that are resistant to heat and repel water and oil. During production and use, PFAS can migrate into the soil, water, and air, remaining in the environment over time as they do not break down easily. 

The presence of PFAS in the environment is an international issue and the number of communities around the US detecting the compounds in drinking water is growing quickly. Research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can impact health, especially effects associated with low levels of exposure to PFAS over long periods of time.

The City of Dubuque began participating in a Iowa DNR program in August of 2022 to proactively to determine the prevalence of a PFAS in Dubuque's drinking water.

  1. More On PFAS Use And Exposure

PFAS can be found in materials in our home and workplaces including:

  • Food packaging like fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers.
  • Household products like stain and water-repellent used on carpets, upholstery, clothing, and other fabrics; cleaning products; non-stick cookware; paints, varnishes, and sealants.
  • Personal care products like certain shampoo, dental floss, and cosmetics.
  • Fire extinguishing foam like those used in training and emergency response events at airports, shipyards, military bases, firefighting training facilities, chemical plants, and refineries.
  • Manufacturing or chemical production like electronics, and certain textile and paper manufacturers.

These chemicals do not break down easily, remaining in our environment. Over time, they can move through soil, air and water, contaminating our natural resources. Due to their widespread production and use, as well as their ability to move and persist in the environment, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS. Most exposures are relatively low, but some can be high, particularly when people are exposed to a concentrated source over long periods of time.


PFAS Use Chart


The City of Dubuque is one of 54 communities participating in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) PFAS Action Plan, a statewide water sampling initiative to determine the prevalence PFAS in drinking water. The number of communities around the U.S. detecting the compounds in drinking water is growing quickly and the DNR’s initiative follows new guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June that drastically lowered the minimum reporting levels for the chemicals. The new advisories’ exposure levels replace the previous level set in 2016, and were set near zero to provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure. They also take into account other potential sources of exposure to these PFAS beyond drinking water, such as food, air, consumer products, etc. The advisory is nonregulatory and is intended to be in place during the time between initial understanding of health effects and publication of the final health advisory. The EPA anticipates proposing a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation by the end of 2022 and finalizing it by the end of 2023.

Because Dubuque’s drinking water sample collected in August 2022 indicated 4.6 parts per trillion (ppt) of one PFAS compound, exceeding the minimum reporting level of 4.0 ppt, the Iowa DNR is requiring the City of Dubuque to notify residents of this test result.

Dubuque Reported 4.6 parts per trillion of PFOA a PFAS. the EPA reporting level is 4.

When tested for PFAS in 2014, Dubuque’s water did not show any detectable levels. The minimum levels of detection required to report are now significantly lower. For complete test results, visit the Iowa DNR’s website.

Dubuque tap water continues to meet all federal and state standards for drinking water safety and customers may continue to drink tap water. 


FAQ's

Is Dubuque water safe to drink because of PFAS?

Dubuque tap water continues to meet all federal and state standards for drinking water safety. Dubuque's drinking water is as safe as it was a month ago, a year ago, and 10 years ago, it has not changed. What has changed is the U.S. EPA's advisory and understanding of what levels of PFAS are safe for consumption. The EPA interim advisories do not recommend that consumers stop using tap water, nor do they recommend boiling water or the use of bottled water.

Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes. However, research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects. Research is also underway to better understand the health effects associated with low levels of exposure to PFAS over long periods of time.

What is Dubuque doing about PFAS?

  • The City has entered into a quarterly testing/monitoring program with the Iowa DNR.
  • Although not required, the City immediately stopped drawing water from the two of its nine wells offline while additional testing is conducted and began exploring additional steps to mitigate the issue.
  • In consultation with the DNR, the City is currently testing its three remaining shallow wells for PFAS compounds because contamination of shallow wells is more likely than deep wells.
  • Based on results a plan that incorporates shallow wells in combination with the deep wells will be devised so that the PFAS concentrations can be maintained below the health advisory levels.
  • Ways to remove PFAS from drinking water include activated carbon processes, ion exchange resins, and high-pressure membranes like reverse osmosis, all of which have different success levels. City staff are working with a consultant to conduct an assessment of the most appropriate treatment technologies to consider for Dubuque’s treatment system if that level of mitigation is necessary.

As more and more communities find themselves impacted by new regulations and the increasingly ubiquitous nature of PFAS, the City of Dubuque awaits additional guidance from state and federal agencies on how to best address the issue. While new regulations require communities to report extremely small amounts of PFAS in drinking water, resources and definitive guidance to address the issue are lacking.

Why are PFAS In Dubuque's water?

Due to their widespread production and use, as well as their ability to move and persist in the environment without breaking down, PFAS are now found in air, soil, and water. Manufacturers like the 3M Company and DuPont are facing lawsuits around the country for making the chemicals. In 2018, the state of Minnesota settled its lawsuit against the 3M Company in return for a settlement of $850 million. The settlement is being invested in drinking water and natural resource projects in the Twin Cities area. West Des Moines Water Works recently joined more than 70 utility companies in a multi-district class action lawsuit on PFAS.

Other Iowa communities that have had PFAS at various levels  in their water include: Ames, Burlington, Camanche, Cedar Rapids, Central City, Davenport, Des Moines, Muscatine, Sioux City, Tama, and West Des Moines. 

What are the potential health effects?

Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes. However, research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects. Research is also underway to better understand the health effects associated with low levels of exposure to PFAS over long periods of time.

The Iowa DNR states that exposure to PFAS may result in a wide range of adverse health outcomes, including: cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney); liver effects (e.g., cellular lesions); thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes); developmental effects including to fetuses after exposure during pregnancy or postnatal development (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations, development of the immune system); and immune effects (e.g., decreased antibody response to vaccination, decreased immune response immunity).

Additionally the EPA's current peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to:

  • Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.
  • Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes.
  • Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.
  • Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response.
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones.
  • Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.

Scientists at the EPA, in other federal agencies, and in academia and industry are continuing to conduct and review the growing body of research about PFAS. However, health effects associated with exposure to PFAS are difficult to specify for many reasons, such as:

  • Thousands of PFAS with potentially varying effects and toxicity levels, yet most studies focus on a limited number of better known PFAS compounds.
  • People can be exposed to PFAS in different ways and at different stages of their life.
  • The types and uses of PFAS change over time, which makes it challenging to track and assess how exposure to these chemicals occurs and how they will affect human health. 

What is a Lifetime Health Advisory?

The new advisories’ exposure levels replace the previous level set in 2016 and were set near zero to provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure. They also consider other potential sources of exposure to these PFAS beyond drinking water, such as food, air, consumer products, etc. The EPA’s lifetime exposure calculations assumed 20% of the exposure is allocated to drinking water and the remaining 80% is attributed to all other potential exposure sources. The advisory is nonregulatory and is intended to be in place during the time between initial understanding of health effects and publication of the final health advisory. The EPA anticipates proposing a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation by the end of 2022 and finalizing it by the end of 2023.

For example, the EPA’s new health advisories have lifetime health advisory levels for PFOA (a common PFAS compound) of 4 parts per quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000), a level undetectable by current technology and significantly lower than the EPA’s 2016 health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (1,000,000,000,000). To illustrate, 4 parts per quadrillion is the same ratio as 4 drops of water within the water it would take to fill 20,000 Olympic size swimming pools.

How can I limit my personal exposure to PFAS?

PFAS have been used in many household products, personal care products, and food packages because of their resistance to heat and liquids. Due to their widespread production and use, as well as their ability to move and persist in the environment, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS from many different sources outside of drinking water. 

Certain technologies however have been found to remove PFAS from drinking water, reducing source of exposure. Those technologies include activated carbon adsorption, ion exchange resins, and high-pressure membranes which can be used where water enters the home, or the point-of-use, such as in a kitchen sink or a shower. Learn more about about these treatment method's from the EPA.

Those looking to reduce their exposure to PFAS from consumer products can look for the following chemicals:

AbbreviationChemical Name
PFOS Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid 
PFOA (aka C8) Perfluorooctanoic acid 
PFNA Perfluorononanoic acid 
PFDA Perfluorodecanoic acid 
PFOSA (aka FOSA) Perfluorooctane sulfonaminde 
MeFOSAA (aka Me-PFOSA-AcOH) 2-(N-Methyl-perfluorooctane sulfonamido) acetic acid 
Et-FOSAA (aka Et-PFOSA-AcOH) 2-(N-Ethyl-perfluorooctane sulfonamido acetic acid 
PFHxS Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid 


Where does Dubuque's water come from?

Dubuque’s Water Treatment Plant on Hawthorne Street treats an average of seven million gallons of water per day. Dubuque’s water comes from a series of wells that pull water from underground aquifers. Our water is partially supplied by the Jordan Aquifer (also known as the Cambrian-Ordovician Aquifer) and we also draw from the Mt. Simon Aquifer and Alluvial Aquifer. Of the nine wells Dubuque currently uses for our city water supply, there are four deep wells (1,000 ft.-1800 ft.), two that draw from the Jordan and two from the Mt. Simon Aquifer. We also use five shallow wells (200 ft.) which draw from the Alluvial Aquifers. Every aquifer has a degree of susceptibility to contamination because of the characteristics of the aquifer, overlying materials, and human activity. Susceptibility to contamination generally increases with shallower aquifers because the characteristics of the aquifer and the overlying materials provide little protection from contamination at the land surface. Susceptibility to contamination generally decreases with deeper wells in the Jordan aquifer because the characteristics of the aquifer and the overlying materials provide moderate protection from contamination at the land surface. 

Additional information: