PFAS in our drinking water: A special report

PFAS: A Special Report


I share many of your concerns with PFAS compounds in our drinking water. PFAS or Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyls are compounds that were used in fire suppression foam at the airport and are man made chemicals that are found in commercial products like Scotchguard and Teflon.

In general they are used to make products resistant to oil, water and heat. They are known as ‘emerging contaminants’ as we are recently learning about their potentially serious effects on humans. They have very strong carbon bonds and can cause health issues such as fertility problems, affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children and cause cancer.

The local media has done an excellent job reporting this story and I point you to these articles to get a thorough background (I won’t cover all the background in this post):

Abigail Becker: The Capital Times

Steven Verbug: Wisconsin State Journal

What is the current situation?

Sharing your concern, in partnership with committee chair Michelle Ritt of the Environment, Ag, and Natural Resources (EANR) committee, we requested an update on this issue to Dane County. We had an very informative presentation from the Madison Water Utility and Public Health Madison and Dane County . The entire audio of the meeting can be found here. If you have the time, I suggest you listen to the whole thing (linked at the top of the post). Here is a link to the presentation that goes with the audio:

Here are the highlights. I want to emphasize:

  • The levels of PFAS found in our drinking water are below what the EPA considers to be a threat. The concentration of PFOA and PFOS are 11.4 parts-per-trillion which is below the 70 parts-per-trillion EPA threshold.

  • The State of Wisconsin currently DOES NOT have any standards for what is considered safe levels of PFAS. The standards will need to be developed in due haste but we can obviously lean on neighboring states standards.

  • Using an abundance of caution, Well 15 was turned off. Here is heat map that shows what neighborhoods get water from Well 15. Almost all of District 6 is out of this service zone:

Courtesy Madison Water Utility

Courtesy Madison Water Utility

  • The Madison Water Utility has indicated that water pressure or service delivery requirements will not be affected by turning off this well. 10 years ago, this well delivered 1 billion gallons of water per year. It now delivers around 400 million gallons per year so it is used significantly less.

  • The public should use caution when eating fish from the lakes as these chemical can be ingested by eating fish. There are posted advisories for other chemicals so the public should be cautious with their intake. Fish testing will happen this spring and results should be available in the fall.

  • Monitoring will be continual through the year, however, soil and ground water testing is contingent upon Air National Guard (Department of Defense) funding. They are hopeful that as the fiscal year comes to a close that dollars will be become available. It is still possible for this testing to be done as early as late fall or if the money is not available this testing may not happen in a timely fashion.

Further Analysis

The big question that I am hearing is are we safe? Like you, I am extremely vigilant of our drinking water. I am not a scientist, but I can provide some risk analysis as a public official:

  • Our current measured levels of PFAS are considered safe by current EPA levels, however, we are at the beginning stages of testing. We will need additional testing and more scientific research for a proper risk analysis. That testing should happen in the next year. Since our levels are low, we will likely be prioritized at a federal level below those more contaminated sites.

  • These chemicals concentrations are measure in parts per trillion. That means the concentration of these chemicals are very low but even at these low levels they present a variety of health risks. To visualize this, 143 drops of this chemical would contaminate Lake Wingra to one part per trillion.

  • We need to identify the extent of this contamination and how far from the airport this toxic plume has moved. The only way to do so is from these tests which can be expensive.

  • These chemicals were intentionally engineered to be hard to destroy. The remediation technologies are relatively new. Remediation could include incineration of soil at very high temperatures. Ground water filters are also have to be disposed of at similar high temperatures. Remediation will not be cheap.

  • The plumes are not thought to be geographically close to other wells. Also the other wells are up-gradient from the contamination so they plume would need to fight gravity to contaminate other wells.

What’s Next?

We need a coordinated response from the City, County and Department of Defense to handle this issue. We are fortunate that our PFAS concentrations are less than at other sites in the country, however, we will need federal help to do this clean up. The city is also developing a committee to monitor this issue and I plan to work closely with them.

We need to start by continuing our detailed testing of groundwater, fish, and soil. We must ensure that PFAS are only discharged into the environment for public safety emergencies like fires. However, for testing or training we must make sure that the PFAS chemicals are not put directly into the environment. We were assured that for training that these chemicals and are contained and disposed of.

Again, I am not a scientist and this post here will be updated as it is reviewed by the public, municipal experts, and the scientific community. Please let me know if I should make any updates or corrections.