Learning about ‘forever chemicals’ found in water

Paul Becker, Staff Writer

The closure of Well 15 in 2019, located on East Washington Avenue near the East Towne Mall, began a heightened course of action over the community’s water supply. Local and national public concern grew due to statistics of higher PFAS levels present in drinking water. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has recently set Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) standards in August of this year, being 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for individual or combined PFAS group contamination.
So, what are PFAS? The Wisconsin Department of Health Services states that PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals used in food packaging, firefighting foam and nonstick cooking wares, among others. PFAS are both tasteless and odorless, as well as water, stain and heat resistant. Known as the “forever chemical,” PFAS DO NOT naturally break down in the environment, tainting our food, water and wildlife.
Taking firefighting foam as an example, when applying the foam to a fire, certain air emissions are inevitable. And, as they travel through the air, biota (e.g., humans, water, plants, wildlife) are the recipients of such emissions. Soil sediments and surface water also fall to the bioaccumulation of PFAS. Irrigation systems in turn spout out carcinogenic substances onto our crops and wild plants.
Because of these existent environmental threats, national standards have been placed on PFAS by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Two PFAS compounds that are highly regarded in drinking water, PFOS and PFOA, have standards of 0.004ppt and 0.02ppt, respectively. PFOS and PFOA have since been eradicated from production in 2015, according to an EPA fact sheet on its PFOA Stewardship Program.
Aside from the environmental factors of PFAS production, public health provides another considerable concern. More than 6,400 PFAS-related lawsuits have been filed since 2005, according to Bloomberg Law, and several companies find themselves responsible for billions in damages. At this rate, although PFAS production has been significantly reduced due to EPA strategies, many more litigations will be filed.
Bloomberg Law did not report on the details of such lawsuits, but public health risks of PFAS consumption may include impacts on immune system functions, increased risk of cancer, reproduction complications, hormonal disruption and delays in childhood development.
PFAS accumulation within our soil and water, on our packaged products and the process of PFAS production, has led to the inexorable conclusion that nearly every single American has PFAS inside their bodies.
To ease one’s concern despite the harrowing statistics of potential and actual harms, Wisconsin’s PFAS regulation is seemingly under control, by the EPA and locally, the Wisconsin DNR. PFAS levels in the Madison area’s 22 wells meet the federal drinking water standards, some even nearly undetectable. A few areas of concern, however, persist. Slow progress and lax civilian/department expert conjunction has delayed the reopening of contaminated Well 15 by over two years. Well 9, located near John Nolen Drive and Lake Monona, has troubling PFAS levels, from a combined 52 ppt in April 2019, to the most recent 29 ppt in Sept. 2021.
Even considering the decrease in contamination levels, Well 9 poses a significant threat to those whose water line is sourced from there, as it contains relatively higher amounts of PFAS, in contrast to the other wells.
Well 9 very well may meet the same demise as Well 15, without proper directive and interest. And, according to new evidence, as stated by the Wisconsin DNR, public health can be impacted at lower levels than the federal standard that has been placed.
This raises a few important questions: should the MCL standards be lowered, what might we be able to do to reduce PFAS consumption and how do we feel about the quality of our water source?
The public has the right to know about the safety of its drinking water and the water used for crops, and the right to participate in local discussion and updates relating to this issue. You can find more information about PFAS in Chapter NR 809, a part of Wisconsin State Legislation.