Per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals that were originally produced by corporations such as DuPont and 3M as early as the 1940s. 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, leachate from landfills where PFAS-containing products have been thrown away, and leachate from fields where biosolids from wastewater treatment plants are applied. 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. Madison Water Utility shut down a nearby municipal well due to public concern over contamination, although tests of other wells that are still operating throughout the city have detected the chemicals. Municipal wells in other municipalities such as La Crosse have been shut down too. For those wells that remain in operation, continued use means water utility customers are sending PFAS-contaminated wastewater down the drain to treatment plants, which in turn landspread contaminated sewage sludge. Many wastewater treatment plants in Wisconsin have yet to test their sewage sludge for PFAS.
The highest groundwater concentration detected in the state is at a Tyco Fire Protection Products property in the Town of Peshtigo where product testing took place. Many private wells in the vicinity of the property have been contaminated and Tyco has proposed connecting those households to Marinette’s public water supply. In addition, the plant where Tyco’s products are manufactured continues to discharge PFAS-contaminated wastewater into the city sewer. The municipal wastewater treatment plant that receives the contaminated wastewater has stopped landspreading contaminated sewage sludge. The plan is to separate the sludge into liquid and solid material, treat the liquid by running it through a carbon filter, and to incinerate the solids. However, if PFAS-containing material is not incinerated at a high enough temperature, the chemicals will not break down, and the emissions will result in atmospheric deposition of PFAS to the surrounding area. On May 30, 2019, DNR referred Tyco to the Department of Justice for civil prosecution after the company waited years to notify DNR of PFAS contamination on its property.
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 groundwater quality standards for PFOA and PFOS. That petition was granted, referred to the Department of Health Services (DHS), and on June 21, 2019 DHS recommended a combined concentration of 20 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. 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. See where DNR is at in the process here. On January 17, 2019, DNR also granted a similar petition submitted by CSWAB to set groundwater quality standards for 26 additional PFAS and to consider regulating PFAS as a class of compounds, but recommendations from DHS are not expected until the fall of 2020.
On May 23, 2019, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers and state Democrats unveiled the Chemical Level Enforcement & Remediation (CLEAR) Act that would provide DNR with the tools it needs to address PFAS contamination in the state. The bill would expedite the state’s response to this emerging contaminant by providing additional funding and staffers to DNR and DHS, allowing DHS to recommend enforcement standards for PFAS as a class rather than as individual compounds, and requiring DNR to immediately enforce any recommended standards to protect drinking water sources. The bill would also require DNR to promulgate emergency rules regulating PFAS in drinking water, groundwater, surface water, air, solid waste, or soil. Read MEA’s full statement in support of the CLEAR ACT here.
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
June 14, 2019 - Tyco, Nygren weigh in on contamination
May 20, 2019 - Tyco recommends Peshtigo get water from Marinette
May 19, 2019 - La Crosse to address contaminants in closed well
Apr 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
Jan 11, 2019 - Study finds dangerous chemical in popular dental floss