Per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS, pronounced “pea-fass”) are a class of more than 3000 man-made chemicals that were originally produced by corporations such as DuPont and 3M as early as the 1930s. PFAS are highly resistant to oil and water, and as such have been used in a wide variety of applications, including dental floss, non-stick cookware, food packaging, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpet, cleaning products, cosmetics, firefighting foams, and much more.
Studies have shown that nearly all people in the United States have a detectable level of PFAS in their blood. PFAS build up in the human body and have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, thyroid hormone disruption, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and can affect the immune system. Exposure to PFAS can occur through drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated fish and deer, coming into contact with contaminated soil, breathing contaminated air near industrial facilities, eating food packaged in certain materials, wearing water-repellent clothing, and using common household items. Infants and small children are particularly vulnerable to exposure, as they often come in direct contact with potentially contaminated carpet and dust while crawling, have a larger surface area relative to their mass, and drink disproportionate amounts of water.
PFAS have been found all over the world, not just the United States. They are introduced into the environment primarily through the discharge of contaminated air and water from manufacturing facilities and through leachate from landfills where PFAS-containing products have been thrown away. Another major source of PFAS contamination comes from firefighting training exercises that involve spraying large amounts of aqueous film-forming foam directly onto the ground without clean-up. Once in the environment, PFAS are extremely persistent and highly mobile, meaning they do not break down and can travel long distances from the source of contamination.
In Wisconsin, sites with known PFAS contamination include several military installations, such as Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Madison. On March 4, 2019, the Madison Water Utility temporarily shut down a nearby municipal well due to public concern over contamination. The highest groundwater concentration detected in the state was at the Tyco Fire Protection Products plant in Marinette. Not only have many private wells in the vicinity of the plant been contaminated, but the plant also continues to discharge PFAS-contaminated wastewater to the city sewer. The municipal wastewater plant that receives the contaminated wastewater has stopped landspreading of contaminated sewage sludge and is storing it until a solution can be found.
DuPont, 3M, and other companies voluntarily agreed in the early 2000s—decades after having evidence of PFAS toxicity—to phase out production of the two most prominent PFAS, perflourooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perflouronate sulfonate (PFOS). However, production of other types of PFAS has continued. For example, DuPont rebranded itself as Chemours and began manufacturing products with a PFAS known as GenX, which has roughly the same properties and has shown many of the same adverse health impacts.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a drinking water health advisory level (HAL) at a combined concentration of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in late 2016. These unenforceable standards have been the subject of much criticism for not being protective enough of human health. In early 2019, EPA signaled that it would set maximum contaminant levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS, but that process could take up to a decade and does not address any other PFAS. Different states have set their own standards, many of which are lower than the federal HAL.
Wisconsin has yet to set any enforceable standards. In the fall of 2017, Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB) petitioned the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to set an HAL for PFOA and PFOS. That petition was granted, and the Department of Health Services is expected to recommend an HAL to DNR sometime in 2019. The process should eventually result in DNR proposing an administrative rule with enforceable standards, although it could take years for the rule to be finalized if approved. On January 17, 2019, DNR also granted a similar petition submitted by CSWAB to set an HAL for 26 additional PFAS and to consider regulating PFAS as a class of compounds.
MEA is currently partnering with citizen groups and organizations such as CSWAB, Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, and Freshwater Future to monitor the situation, provide community resources, and demand that our government take necessary action to protect the environment and public health from these toxic substances.
For more information, contact MEA's intake hotline via e-mail or call (608) 251-5047 extension 9.
Are you concerned that your drinking water may be contaminated with PFAS? Public water systems and private well owners should test for PFAS if they are near a military base or an area that has been used for firefighting activities, an industrial area where PFAS manufacturing, disposal, or use occurred, or landfills.
Freshwater Future has partnered with the University of Michigan Biological Station to provide low-cost PFAS testing for private well owners in Wisconsin at $70 per sample. Order your test kit from Freshwater Future’s website here and select the $70 payment option.
The following laboratories are able to analyze PFAS in drinking water at lower detection limits:
ALS Global, Kelso, Washington (360) 577-7222, Contact: Mark Harris
Eurofins, South Bend, Indiana (574) 233-4777, Contact: Brian Remus - (518) 605-9645
SGS AXYS, 2045 Mills Road W., Sidney BC Canada (888) 373-0881
WeckLabs, City of Industry, California (626) 336-2139, Contact: Marilyn
PFAS IN THE NEWS
April 9, 2019—Trace Levels of PFAS Found in More Wells in Madison
Feb 14, 2019—Wisconsinites React to EPA PFAS Plan
Feb 11, 2019—Wisconsin takes on PFAS contamination