All Wausau municipal wells found with PFAS contamination

Residents do not have to boil water
Published: Feb. 9, 2022 at 9:13 AM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The city of Wausau, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Department of Health Services held a virtual press conference on Wednesday to inform the public about PFAS contamination in city wells. The city also noted it first became aware of some PFAS levels in its wells in 2019.

The city of Wausau and Wausau Water Works recently conducted voluntary testing of all municipal drinking water supply wells for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.

PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the nation and the globe. Scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. Dr. Sarah Yang, the groundwater toxicologist for DHS said exposure to high levels of PFAS can increase cholesterol levels, decrease response to certain vaccines, and reduced fertility in women, among other health problems.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, and they are found in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products. This makes it challenging to study and assess the potential human health and environmental risks.

Wausau residents do not need to immediately stop drinking or using the city’s water. However, long-term exposure to high levels of PFAS may contribute to those negative health impacts. Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommends people limit their intake of PFAS compounds. Boiling water does not remove PFAS.

PFAS was detected in all city wells at levels that are less than the EPA Health Advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt), but exceeded the proposed DNR future drinking water standard of 20 ppt based on a recommendation from the DHS. However, there are no official state or federal standards for PFAS levels in drinking water.

PFAS levels in Wausau’s municipal wells most recent testing ranged from 23 to 48 parts per trillion (ppt).

“We’re going to work as quickly as we can to make sure that our entire system is set up so folks can feel confident that we’re below that 20 parts per trillion, that will take a bit of time, but it is accumulation in the body over time,” Mayor Katie Rosenberg said.

Wausau discovered contamination in 2019

The city’s director of public works, Eric Lindman said they learned they had PFAS contamination in all of their wells in the summer of 2019. He explained they were testing the raw water as they were working on design plans for a new water treatment facility that is expected to open in about seven months. With news coming out about this emerging contaminate, they wanted to know if that was something they would need to address in the future with this new facility.

At the time, the EPA had already issued the previously mentioned health advisory. The results came back well under the EPA’s recommendation of 70 ppt. They were between 18 to about 28 ppt. which is near or above the recommended levels the DNR recommends, however, the DNR did not issue its health advisory until a few months later in November.

“Typically, with no standards in place, we take direction from the DNR and it was just in late December that the DNR approached us to ask us if we’d be willing to test for PFAS,” Lindman said.

Between 2019 and when the DNR reached out in 2021, Wausau had not notified the DNR.

“December 2021 was when we first found out the results in 2019,” Kyle Burton, the DNR’s field operations director in the Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater. “We talked those through with Wausau, recommended some confirmation sampling to get some better data and when that confirmation sampling came back in in January 2022, that’s when we started working through this process of public notification.”

NewsChannel 7 asked in the press conference, that given all of the continuous coverage of PFAS contamination in municipalities like Rhinelander since 2019 and the health concerns, why was it not mentioned sooner that there was PFAS present in the wells? Lindman responded that it had to do with the levels; Rhinelander’s levels for some of its wells were above the EPA health advisory recommendation, Wausau’s was below. However, throughout the press conference, officials stated PFAS contamination in the body builds up over time. The public was not given the information to have the opportunity to reduce their consumption and the buildup of PFAS in their bodies over a period of two and a half years.

What’s being done

While the city may not have alerted the public when it was first discovered, Lindman said finding it in 2019 influenced some of the design of the new water treatment plant. It went with an anion exchange system with a resin medium, which has shown promise of removing PFAS chemicals. What they do not know is how much it will be able to remove with Wausau’s specific water chemistry.

That will be part of a pilot study. Wausau Water Works will look at two to three removal processes at the same time at the existing water treatment facility. Its goal will be to get the levels as low as possible. Lindman said the expect the study to be up and running in early-to-mid-March. In the meantime, the city is looking at ways people can reduce their exposure. Mayor Rosenberg urged the city council and Wausau Water Works Committee to hold special meetings to discuss PFAS.

The DNR will also conduct a cursory review of the contamination in the area to see how widespread it is across the area and potential sources of the contamination. If appropriate, Burton said they will work with those entities to conduct site investigation and remediation. It will also assist with finding possible solutions, such as digging new wells, however, more investigation is needed to determine if that would even help.

Since there is not a quick fix to this problem, Lindman said they are looking at alternative water sources and will be sharing them with the city council. That could possibly include sources from bottled water filling stations set up around the city, to bringing in a mobile treatment facility to treat water out of the current treatment facility.

The city will not shut down the use of its wells like some other municipalities have, such as Rhinelander, since all of the wells are impacted.

Dr. Yang said no epidemiological studies are planned for Wausau or the state at this time and that it is best done by a research university. The agency for toxic substances and disease registry has, historically, had funding opportunities. Dr. Yang stated DHS has applied for them and not met the qualifications, but is constantly working on those opportunities.

It is a costly adventure for municipalities. The governor announced Tuesday an EPA grant is available to municipalities that want to get their wells tested for PFAS; a test that can cost more than $350 at a minimum. Burton said that if the money cannot cover all municipalities that want testing, the DNR will make it a priority to urge the extension of that funding.

Lindman said they have not asked the DNR whether they could receive the EPA testing grant to pay for the testing they just did, however, they are proposing to ask the DNR if the funding could be used to offset their testing costs with the pilot study.

Congress also has about $10 billion set aside to address PFAS contamination in its infrastructure bill. Burton said that money would be funneled through the state revolving loan fund program, but they are waiting for specific guidance from the EPA as to how to distribute it.

NewsChannel 7 asked, given the cost to address these issues, what incentives municipalities have -- other than to protect their citizens -- to test and not claim ignorance to the problem? Burton noted the Congressional investment, explaining that there is a five-year window to use the money, so municipalities would be encouraged to test while they had the support.

Mayor Rosenberg said they are looking at state and federal assistance opportunities to address the issue. In the meantime, she said they will have to look to existing city funding and utility costs.

The "forever chemicals" are known to be harmful to health in humans, and were found in small amounts in Wausau's water wells

Setting a standard

There is no state or federal standard for PFAS levels in drinking water. The DNR board will be holding a meeting Feb. 23 to consider the standard recommendation of 20 ppt, based on DHS’ science and public input on the matter can be submitted through Feb. 17. If it is approved, it will be sent on to the legislature.

The legislature will consider the health impacts to the community, but it will also face business’ interests in the matter too and it already has. In June the legislature proposed a bill that would help municipalities with the costs to clean up PFAS, but on the condition that they could not sue the companies that caused the issue.

Other municipalities around the state are looking at or have already filed lawsuits against companies that manufacture PFAS. Mayor Rosenberg said those law firms have already reached out to the city attorney.

“That would be a policy decision that the policy body would have to decide on, but that’s not out of the question.”

At this time, she said no businesses have reached out to the city concerning their use of PFAS.

What you can do now

Dr. Yang said PFAS concentration in the body builds up over time, however, reducing exposure to PFAS reduces those levels. It can take time for PFAS levels in the body to reach a point of concern, but she noted it can stay in the body for many years.

There are some mitigation strategies, with certain filtering processes showing reductions in PFAS levels. However, Dr. Yang said something like a typical refrigerator filter may not be enough.

She encouraged people to reduce their use of their unfiltered tap as a source of drinking water, using it to prepare beverages, or for foods that take in a lot of water like rice, jello, and oatmeal. She said things like rinsing food, cooking pasta or potatoes, and steaming vegetables that do not hold as much water are OK. Household chores like doing laundry or dishes, and bathing are also fine.

People are encouraged to follow the DNR’s fish consumption advisories as not to consume fish that have been living in PFAS contaminated waterways. Dr. Yang also recommends that people vacuum regularly to reduce exposure to particles coming off of PFAS products, such as waterproof clothing or furniture, creating dust.

Dr. Yang encourages people who have concerns about their health to consult with their doctor.

There are more resources listed on the city’s website here.

Private well owners are responsible to test their own wells. Learn more about how to do that and recommendations here.

correction: In a previous version of this story, it was stated that the Natural Resource Board met on Feb. 3, however, the board will be meeting on Feb. 23 to discuss, among other things, PFAS standards. It has since been corrected. The public comment period remains correct.

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