PFAS is a forever chemical that can cause harm with high levels, and it’s in Madison water

PFAS is a forever chemical that can cause harm with high levels, and it’s in Madison water

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is approaching the two year anniversary of its PFAS action plan, the goal of which was to stop this harmful family of chemical compounds from spreading in water around the state. 


PFAS stands for perfluorokyl and polyfluorokyl substances. Melanie Johnson, Director in the Office of Emerging Contaminants at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said PFAS is an umbrella term for 9000 different chemical compounds that can cause contamination. 


Joseph Grande, the water quality manager for the City of Madison, said the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has evaluated about three dozen PFAS compounds and determined that 18 of them have a health risk. 


Exposure to high levels of PFAS can cause issues with pregnancy, affect hormones or weaken someone’s immune system, according to Johnson. There are ways to address PFAS, but it is considered a “forever chemical,” meaning they do not break down in the environment or the body.. 


“Because they're considered a forever chemical, you know, we really see them out there and we haven't really found ways to get rid of them yet,” Johnson said. 


Even though policy makers and environmentalists cannot totally get rid of PFAS, there are ways to address them, which is why the DNR developed the action council. 


Where is this chemical?

Grande said his role is to assess levels of PFAS in wells around Madison. His team tests the city’s 22 wells twice a year for levels of anywhere from 18 to 36 PFAS compounds. 


Madison Water has been testing wells for about 10 years— it first discovered PFAS in 2012. The EPA issued a health advisory in 2016 that the combined levels of PFOA and PFOS in wells should not exceed 70 parts per trillion. 


Grande said the highest level of combined PFOA and PFOS chemicals Madison has reached is about 12 parts per trillion in well 15, which is located right next the airport, so they had to close the well down. 


Grande said they took well 15 offline in 2019 because of concerns related to the number of PFAS compounds in the well. Although the level of PFOA and PFOS was not very high, the other compounds made the hazard levels very high.  


The city is working to install a treatment system in that well by 2024. Most other wells have levels of only two parts per trillion which is not known to be harmful. 


The main reason that certain wells have more risk of contamination is their age. Grande said older wells don’t have the steel casting that separates the lower aquifer from the upper aquifer, which prevents contamination from getting into the higher quality water at the lower part of the well. 


There are also low levels of PFAS in many personal care products like deodorant, skin care and dental products. It is also found in upholstered products that are water resistant and food packaging containers. 


“By the time you know someone has woken up in the morning and started to get ready for work, they've probably already been exposed to two or three different sources of PFAS,” Grande said. 


What do we know about it?

A new study by University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers is looking into PFAS contamination in groundwater and how it lasts so long.


William Gnesda, a UW–Madison grad student and the study’s lead author, said a large portion of the research is focused on analyzing PFAS behavior in the unsaturated zone, which is composed of a combination of water, soil and rock between the ground and water surface. 


According to the researchers, PFAS can exist in the environment for decades and persist in these well aquifers, causing drinking water contamination. 


“PFAS contamination allegedly stopped 30 years ago, but they're still getting contamination into groundwater drinking wells, because you have PFAS that's just kind of stuck in these really low concentrations, slowly leeching off in the groundwater,” Gnesda said. 


Gnesda said the end goal of their study is to be able to predict PFAS movement in groundwater and especially in this unsaturated zone so they can understand when it will be a problem. 


Johnson, of the DNR, said it is important to know that because PFAS is a forever chemical, we will never be able to fully get rid of it. 


But Johnson said it’s encouraging to see how states and cities and counties have worked together to combat contamination. 


“Our communities are resilient and they are quick to connect with others who've been through it and learn from them. And they are engaged,” Johnson said. “I think this really is a very bright spot in this work. And we’ve been really good partners as we've navigated this together.” 


What is being done about it? 

Noting the two year anniversary of the action plan,  Johnson said the DNR recently had to make a progress report on what it had done so far to mitigate PFAS in the environment. She listed several of the projects they have worked on these past two years. 


The DNR did a sampling project of more than 140 public or municipal drinking water systems. After this, it developed an interactive map of PFAS levels throughout public wells in the state, where people can check their water quality report. 


They have also sampled fish and deer to establish consumption advisories for different areas, Johnson said. 


Additionally, because there is a lot of PFAS in firefighting foam, the use of this foam was prohibited in Wisconsin about two years ago. The DNR has helped firefighters get rid of old foam and established limits for preventing contamination if they do use it. 


“It is really exciting and a real testament to the leadership and engagement from the firefighting community on this issue and their willingness to work with one another and work with us to make sure that they're all informed about the dangers of PFAS,” Johnson said. 


The Legislature also passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that gives the community $100 million towards infrastructure that the city and DNR can use to improve wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. 


What should the community think about?

Grande said Madison Water works to keep the public informed about the testing they do on wells through media releases and a water report called the Consumer Confidence Report which goes out every year. He encourages residents of Madison to look at that report to understand what is in their water.. 


Grande also said Madison residents should check out their website for more PFAS updates. 


Consumers can take action against PFAS contamination in different products by protesting unnecessary levels in products like plastic baby bottles. Grande said these products are driven by consumer demand, so consumers can have an impact on PFAS levels by altering their buying habits. 



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