Protecting our health from PFAS
What Are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are an emerging class of chemicals with alarming health impacts. PFAS are a class of over 5,000 synthetic chemicals that have been produced since the 1940s. The unique physical and chemical characteristics of PFAS make them resistant to oil, water and temperature. While these properties make PFAS very useful chemicals for a wide variety of products, they also have contaminated water in many parts of Wisconsin, posing a threat to public health.
How Are PFAS Used?
One of the best-known uses of these chemicals is in firefighting foam. Military bases, airports, and firefighting training areas where these foams are used are among the first places where PFAS contamination has been identified in groundwater here in Wisconsin.
PFAS are also commonly used in textile manufacturing, plastic and paper products (e.g., fast food wrappers), household products (Teflon non-stick cookware), metal plating processes, medical products, personal care products (shampoos, dental floss), and other products.
How Do PFAs Effect Health?
One of the defining characteristics of PFAS chemicals is the carbon-fluorine chain. The carbon-fluorine bond is very strong, so PFAS do not break down easily, leading some to refer to PFAS as “forever chemicals.” This strong bond means that once PFAS get into the environment, or our bodies, they stick around and accumulate over a lifetime. Researchers are still working to better understand the health effects of PFAS. So far studies have shown that there can be multiple health effects from PFAS exposure:
Impaired development in children
Reduced female fertility
Impaired immune function
Increased hormone interference
Based on the current state of knowledge, the primary way people are exposed to PFAS is through contaminated drinking water and eating food containing PFAS (PFAS can bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife) or contaminated by its packaging. Inhalation and incidental ingestion of household dust is also a potential pathway, particularly for younger children.
PFAS Contamination in Wisconsin
Highest known contamination sites with maximum level of PFAS compound found during testing, measured in parts per trillion (ppt). The state health based standard is 20 ppt.
Gov. Evers and lawmakers are taking steps to address PFAS
- February 2019: In the 2019-21 State Budget Governor Evers proposed funding for staff, modeling contamination sites, and a study of firefighters utilizing PFAS material. This proposal passed the state legislature and was signed into law in July 2019.
- May 2019: Senate Bill 302, The Chemical Level Enforcement and Remediation (CLEAR) ActIntroduced by Sens Mark Miller and Dave Hansen, and Reps Chris Taylor, Staush Gruszynski and Melissa Sargent, and supported by the Governor and the DNR. The CLEAR Act is one of the most comprehensive PFAS bills in the nation. Introduced by Sens Mark Miller and Dave Hansen, and Reps Chris Taylor, Staush Gruszynski and Melissa Sargent, and supported by the Governor and the DNR. This bill regulates in a science-based approach across more mediums, provides more protective standards, and plans for remediation and cleanup of PFAS.
- June 2019: The state Department of Health Services (DHS) finalized its Cycle 10 recommendations for groundwater enforcement standards which included 2 PFAS chemicals (PFOA and PFOS). These recommendations had not been revised in over 10 years and was a vital step in kickstarting addressing PFAS pollution. DHS recommended a combined level of 20 ppt for PFOA and PFOS safe for public health.
- June 2019: Assembly Bill 323 was introduced by Senator Rob Cowles and Representative John Nygren. This bill bans the use of two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, in firefighting training instances, which is the source of water contamination issues like in Marinette, WI.
- August 2019: Gov. Evers signed Executive Order #40 increases coordination and public awareness on PFAS.
- Increases collaboration among state agencies to work together to address PFAS.
- Creates a Coordinating Council to bring everyone to the table to start working on solutions.
- Focuses on people, what is best for public health by educating, outreach, and working together.
- August 2019: Gov. Evers directed DNR to address PFAS through rule-making in drinking water, surface water, and groundwater.
- This allows for DNR to really start enforcing and setting standards for more ways that PFAS gets into our waterways. Recognizes the science-based approach and collaborative state agency work that is necessary to start addressing PFAS pollution.
Clean Wisconsin commends the Natural Resources Board (NRB) for voting on Wednesday to allow the Department of Natural Resources to move forward with developing surface water, groundwater, and drinking water standards for a class of chemicals known as PFAS.
It puts the state on the path to getting to the end result of state protections from PFAS pollution we desperately need.
This January is quickly shaping up to be a busy month for drinking water, with many consequential policy actions taking place.