Wisconsin regulators’ move to develop rules on PFAS contamination in groundwater is not a surprise. The attention to the chemicals’ contamination of water supplies has grown considerably in recent years, and it’s certainly an issue for the state.
PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” for their remarkable durability. They don’t break down easily, which gives them plenty of time to accumulate in sometimes significant concentrations. Four of the chemicals — and there are far more than that — are being targeted for the new regulations.
While a similar move was tossed out 10 months ago, it’s hard to reconcile the regulations on surface and drinking water with the absence of similar guidelines for groundwater. Groundwater supplies the water used for cooking and drinking for something like two-thirds of the state’s residents. Leaving that untouched meant Wisconsin had a gaping hole in the protections.
Eau Claire has its own challenges with PFAS, as we’ve reported on numerous times over the past couple years. In the summer of 2021 the city shut down wells after testing found the chemicals in the water they produced. Additional wells have been cut off from the city’s water supply in the time since those initial tests.
Additional checks this past July found PFAS contamination at the airport, which most suspect is the source for the contaminated wells. Airports have long used firefighting foam that includes PFAS. Federal regulators — never known for rapid action — have been extraordinarily slow to approve foams that don’t use the chemicals.
It’s important to note that, while the proposals will help protect drinking water, they don’t actually solve the underlying problem. Contamination will continue, regardless of whether people can drink the water from contaminated sources.
There is some reason for optimism. Researchers in Illinois think PFAS chemical bonds can be broken using a lye solution. Other studies seek the same end using heat. More exotic techniques are also being examined.
It seems probable that a way to break down PFAS will eventually be found. There are two basic questions, though. How much will it cost and how long will it take? The longer PFAS contamination itself goes unaddressed, the more widespread it is likely to become. That means any remediation becomes more expensive, even if it’s cheap at small scale.
Eau Claire is beginning to feel that financial burden. Lane Berg, the city’s utilities manager, said in July Eau Claire is “going to have to spend some money.” The technology exists to remove the chemicals from the water, but it’s not cheap.
The long-term solution is a way to destroy PFAS in the environment, combined with an end to some of the more profligate uses of the chemicals. And, again, research is beginning to point the way. Some bacteria seem to be able to consume the chemicals and break them down, raising the prospect of a natural solution. But even if that proves true it will take time.
It’s fair to ask what effects PFAS will have on humans, since contamination is likely to continue for some time. The answer is that we don’t really know yet. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control, said exposure seems to have a negative effect on the immune system, raise cholesterol levels and alter liver enzymes, among other effects.
Research is ongoing to determine whether these seeming effects are real and what level of exposure leads to them.
For now, limiting the exposure to PFAS makes sense. That means developing regulations that cover all of Wisconsin’s water sources, not just those that flow along the surface.
The continuing work, research and regulations will unquestionably mean additional costs in the long run. We understand that. The reality is, though, that we have little choice as a society.
Knowingly consuming PFAS until someone can point to exactly what level becomes harmful means some people would inevitably, unknowingly, cross that point.
Creating the regulations is a step in the right direction. Approval must await the final proposals, and those must be reviewed carefully, but this is the right starting point for Wisconsin.
–Eau Claire Leader-Telegram