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PFAS contamination likely impacting more Wisconsin communities than currently known

Published: Dec. 9, 2021 at 7:25 PM CST
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RHINELANDER, Wis. (WSAW) - Pressure is growing at the federal level for government agencies to not purchase products containing PFAS, as well as holding government agencies accountable for their efforts to address the contamination happening around the country.

Thursday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing examining federal agencies’ efforts to address PFAS contamination. Specifically, it was looking at the Environmental Protection Agency efforts along with the Department of Defense’s role in remediating the exposure to people at the department. Sean O’Donnell, the EPA’s inspector general and interim inspector general for the DoD said in the hearing that they did not handle those responsibilities adequately.

Ahead of the hearing, members of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS task force also issued a letter to the Biden Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, which is in the process of writing an executive order related to PFAS. The letter urges the council to include a requirement that federal agencies look for products that do not have PFAS chemicals in them when making purchases during the government procurement process.

“We know now that it’s directly linked to cancer outbreaks throughout our country,” Rep. Ron Kind, (D-WI) a member of the task force told NewsChannel 7 as a reason for urgency.

PFAS is the term for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, of which there are more than 4,000 different chemical variations. Generally, the chemicals are designed to make things water, oil, fire, temperature, or chemical-resistant. It is used in things like cell phones, surgical gowns, popcorn bags, low-emission cars, rain jackets, and firefighting foam.

3M created the chemicals in the 1940s and began using them in some of their products in the 50s, like Scotchgard. The company phased out the two types of PFAS it was using back then after it began doing research, finding the chemicals in places they did not use to be, like in wild animals. However, it still uses newer forms of PFAS in some of its products.

NewsChannel 7 asked whether 3M could create and provide alternatives to PFAS and still provide the resistant technology when needed. It responded in a statement:

PFAS refers to a broad category of thousands of compounds with distinct and widely varying properties and characteristics. These may include high resistance to oil, water, temperature, chemicals, and fire, which makes certain PFAS necessary for many critical modern products.

3M is a leader in inventing advanced materials that serve important technological and societal needs, including PFAS. PFAS compounds are used by a broad range of customers and industries worldwide to make innovations like life-saving medical devices and low-emission vehicles possible, and 3M is committed to serving our customers in these critical applications.

To meet the needs of customers who are interested in PFAS alternatives, we are working to identify alternative substances that can retain important performance properties for our products and customers where possible. However, suitable alternatives are not always available to help ensure 3M’s products can meet our customers’ needs.

Rep. Kind responded to the same question speaking broadly about companies using PFAS in their products.

“It’s not only realistic but absolutely necessary. I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a product in the consumer market that we found to be incredibly dangerous to people and these companies pivot from it, they have to.”

He said Congress needs to continue to be in conversation with businesses to work with them to pivot.

“A lot of industry groups are pushing back hard in regards to transparency and disclosure requirements and just the overall use of PFAS in a lot of our products.”

He explained having that transparency with companies will help communities know and understand where the contamination is coming from and how to mitigate it.

“Because PFAS are a forever chemical that’s designed and engineered to work very, very well, you know, getting rid of it and containing it is really, really, really difficult,” Rhinelander’s city administrator, Zach Vruwink said.

Rhinelander is one of 35 sites identified in Wisconsin to have contamination. Two of the city’s wells have been shut down due to high levels after the EPA did a random sampling test in 2019. Both wells are near the airport, but there is uncertainty about where the contamination is coming from.

Environmentalists suspect firefighting foam containing PFAS, which has since been nearly completely banned in Wisconsin, is the reason for the contamination. The Department of Natural Resource’s director of emerging contaminates, Mimi Johnson said they have tested six of eight commercial airports in the state and all six of those tested have been found to have contamination around the site.

Johnson says she expects the other two airport sites will have contamination too, though that does not mean it will impact drinking water. She also suspects there are more communities around Wisconsin that have contamination too.

“What we’ve seen in other states that have had more comprehensive, statewide sampling, it’s about 5-10% of communities have drinking water that’s at elevated levels of contamination. And so, we would expect, if we were to do statewide sampling here we would see similar results.”

She said they have found PFAS in eaglets, deer, and fish in the state too.

“We’ve issued more than 17 consumption advisories for PFAS alone for fish.”

There are a few reasons more communities have not been tested. First, testing is expensive, costing upwards of $350 per test. The state and federal agencies also do not have drinking, ground, and surface water standards for acceptable levels of PFAS to be detected.

“Without knowing what those levels are, to do tests might be viewed as premature and I’m sure there’s (sic) other factors why folks at this time would opt to not test,” Vruwink noted.

Johnson discouraged private-well owners from testing at this time, largely for the cost burden, unless they are near a known contamination site. Those households would have received a letter encouraging them to test.

Wisconsin is in the process of creating standards. A public hearing about drinking water standards happened last week, Friday is a hearing for surface water, and in a few more weeks the public can weigh in on groundwater standards. Johnson said she expects the process to be completed this winter and have the standards in place in spring, 2022.

Wisconsin is set to receive at least $142 million for water quality initiatives through the federal government for next year alone, and Johnson is hoping they will be able to better understand the scope and the source through some of that funding.

“Then we need to help out those communities and those families who are adversely impacted by PFAS through identification, testing, and then remediation and clean up,” Rep. Kind said about continuing to advocate for additional federal resources for communities.

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