Concerns are bubbling up over contaminated drinking water in some Wisconsin municipalities, leading officials to take action.
The contaminants are per- and poly-fluorinated compounds, a class of more than 3,000 related chemicals known collectively as PFAS. They’re present in household items such as non-stick cookware and food packaging, as well as firefighting foam.
PFAS exposure presents a health hazard; some studies have shown that certain PFAS compounds may increase cholesterol, reduce fertility in women, impact the immune system, increase cancer risk and more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s toxicology agency. Because humans cannot metabolize these compounds, exposure accumulates over time.
The federal government doesn't regulate the compounds.
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a health advisory for two of the most commonly used PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS. They advise that the combined concentration of these compounds should fall below the 70 parts per trillion threshold for drinking water. However, the advisory is non-enforceable.
Some worry that advisory level is still too high. Vermont has a 20 parts per trillion enforceable standard for drinking water. And Wisconsin is looking into establishing a standard of its own.
Wisconsinites have paid more attention to PFAS in the past few years. In recent weeks, the compounds have made headlines in and around Madison and Marinette as officials and residents push for change.
In 2017 in Madison, two wells tested positive for PFAS, though in amounts well below the EPA’s guideline. Well 15 is located off East Washington Avenue, and showed higher concentrations, and well 16 is on Mineral Point Road. Groundwater contamination near Marinette comes from the Tyco Fire Protection Products facility.
"The problem with that is that no one is really sure that the established limit set by the EPA is indeed current or correct enough to prohibit harm to human health," said Lauren Cnare, president of the Madison Water Utility Board.
Well 15 showed a higher number of compounds than well 16 and is located near the Truax Air National Guard Base, which officials believe to be the source of contamination. Testing at well 15 previously occurred semi-annually, but the city began monthly testing in February.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin sent a letter to Capt. Matthew Shaw at the base in November, asking the Guard to expand their investigation into PFAS groundwater contamination.
"The Madison community wants PFAS-free drinking water," Soglin wrote.
Some residents also called for increased testing and voiced concerns about health risks, including at a meeting of the Madison Water Utility Board last Tuesday. There, the board resolved to increase protections and regulations of PFAS through six measures:
They will seek to test all 23 municipal wells in Madison, which will likely cost between $7,000 and $10,000.
They asked Public Health Madison Dane County to provide support and information to vulnerable populations serviced by a contaminated well, such as families with young children.
They asked Public Health Madison Dane County to contact health officials in states with drinking water PFAS standards, such as Minnesota and New Jersey.
They will write to Wisconsin’s congressional representatives requesting funds to develop plans for a groundwater study and remediation efforts at the Truax Air Field.
They will develop a contingency plan for shutting down wells 15 and 16, which tested positive for PFAS contamination.
They will write to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources urging the establishment of a state drinking water standard for PFAS.
Several alders will also pursue a PFAS task force convening city, county and state officials. Mayor Soglin issued a statement Friday supporting the task force, writing: "Madison Water Utility did not cause this problem, but they will be willing participants in finding a solution which will assure the continued availability and delivery of safe water for all residents of the city."
Cnare credited the residents near well 15, which so far has shown the highest concentration of contamination, for researching the issue and voicing concern.
"When our citizens are worried, we are worried," Cnare said.