The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has identified eight pollutant sites in the state’s water supply systems that reveal the presence of a potentially dangerous set of unreactive chemicals.
DNR spokesperson Andrew Savagian said investigations into the effects of the chemical perfluorooctanesulfonic acid on the environment are ongoing at the DNR.
“This is an emerging issue nationally and locally,” Savagian said. “We’re all trying to get a feel for the nature and history behind the contaminations and what we can do once it gets into the environment or people’s wells.”
The contamination is centered around the Truax Air National Guard Base, where, according to a DNR report, a fire retardant substance containing PFAS had been used.
According to the report, the substance made its way into the soil near the base and eventually into shallow groundwater beneath the base. These aquifers are located within close proximity to one of Madison’s primary wells, Well 15.
The Madison Water Utility released a statement outlining the extent of the contamination of Well 15. According to this report, the levels found directly in the well were below the health hazard levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
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Testing has continued, and they have found slight increases in concentration according to a more recent report. The source of the observed increase is attributed to Truax’s location within Well 15’s groundwater capture zone.
According to the EPA’s website, PFAS chemicals are man-made substances that have been used by manufacturing companies for years. They have many common uses in food packaging, commercial household products and electronics manufacturing.
University of Wisconsin environmental chemistry professor Matt Ginder-Vogel said these chemicals aren’t a concern in low concentrations. But given their persistent nature, there’s nothing impeding a more dangerous and widespread contamination.
“I think [PFAS] get used a lot in various liquids, to give them properties that they want,” Ginder-Vogel said. “They practiced fighting fires at the airport using a fire retardant that had PFAS in it, and it just ends up in the river or lakes and on down to the groundwater.”
PFAS are extremely persistent in both natural environments and the human body, as they don’t break down naturally over time, according to the EPA. This property of PFAS chemicals gives them their industrial value — though it contributes directly to their continued contamination.
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Ginder-Vogel said Madison has two aquifers that are drawn upon, an upper unconfined aquifer that can be impacted by things on the surface, and a deep aquifer that has heavy metal contaminants. They are separated by a layer of rock in the middle, and water won’t move from the top to the bottom unless mixed, like in the case of Well 15.
Previous studies identified on the EPA’s website have already found strong evidence linking high concentrations of certain PFAS chemicals to higher levels of cholesterol.
“In this case, it’s do you know which chemicals you want to get rid of and which ones you don’t, and which ones are truly hazardous and which ones maybe aren’t so hazardous,” said Ginder-Vogel.
Additional EPA studies referenced on their website have began to associate high PFAS levels with more serious health concerns. Lower infant birth rates, cancer, immune system problems and thyroid hormone disruption have all been connected to PFAS contamination. These studies aren’t as conclusive as those finding the link between high concentrations and high cholesterol.
Ginder-Vogel in addition to the research on how PFAS chemicals affect environments and people — other studies are searching for strategies to contain and treat contaminated areas as well as deal with other problems surrounding drinking water. A UW civil engineering capstone project focuses on solving those issues.
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“I know the Madison Water Utility is working with the capstone project, so they have a choice to make,” Ginder-Vogel said. “Do you install a system to treat PFAS, or do you install a system to treat for the water quality issues you have in the deep aquifer?”
The Madison Water Utility plans on continued monitoring and testing of the contaminated well and is keeping their options open on how they will address the rising concerns surrounding PFAS.