As tensions rise around PFAS in Madison’s drinking water, Madison Water Utility and University of Wisconsin researchers continue to work towards addressing the community and the mysteries behind the chemicals.

According to the EPA, PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a group of man-made chemicals used in various products such as food packaging, non-stick pans and firefighting foams. In 2017, MWU discovered PFAS in its water wells.

Amy Barrilleaux, Public Information Officer for MWU, said the city tested for PFAS in 2015 and found no traces. MWU employed further testing using new, sensitive techniques, when studies began to show PFAS may have health effects at lower levels than testing required, according to Barilleaux,.

“Just a few years ago we were not ever able to see down that low when looking at these chemicals,” Barrilleaux said. “So, there is a lot of rapid change in respect to this topic, even just in the last two years.”

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According to the PFAS-RECH project, 98% of Americans have PFAS in their bodies. PFAS build up in humans over time from various points of exposure, and accumulation can increase to a point where they cause adverse health effects, the EPA website states.

According to Barrilleaux, the EPA has a health advisory level in drinking water for two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion. Other nongovernmental organizations advocate for lower levels, such as the Environmental Working Group who encourages a drinking water guideline at just 1 ppt to protect children’s health, according to reporting by USA Today.

“Chemical companies always seem to be ahead of the regulatory environment,” Barrilleaux said. “PFOA and PFOS aren’t being manufactured anymore, but there are many, many other types that are.”

In 2017, Well 15, located near the Truax National Air Base, had PFOA and PFAS levels detected at around 12 ppt, according to the City of Madison. The well was shut down in 2019 after Vermont came out with the toughest standard in the nation, which Barrilleaux said would make Well 15 out of compliance.

In the 2019 study done by MWU, 14 of Madison’s 23 wells had some trace of PFAS. In this study, Well 15 had PFAS levels detected at 56ppt.

Barrilleaux said none of the Madison wells in use found with traces of PFAS are outside current regulation standards and far below the strictest standards in the country. She said discovering these chemicals at any level is displeasing.

“We are looking at extremely, extremely low levels,” Barrilleaux said. “But … we are starting to understand that when you start looking for these compounds, you’re going to find them.”

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Barrilleaux said MWU and the city are limited in power to solve this issue on their own. But, since MWU’s testing is ahead of regulation, they have been working extensively with the DNR to help build up their database to test and hopefully increase regulation and information on PFAS, Barrilleaux said.

Despite MWU’s ability to work with the DNR, Barrilleaux said there are still many questions MWU can’t answer.

“It’s really hard, I think, for people to understand why things aren’t happening more quickly, why this is in our water and how it got there,” Barrilleaux said. “It’s a tough situation to be in as a community, but I think it will be beneficial in the long run.”

According to the FDA, there are 5,000 PFAS commonly used throughout the economy. PFOA and PFOS are among the oldest versions of the chemical group; many of the newer ones have not been studied yet, Barrilleaux said.

Barrilleaux said the conversation with the community becomes even more complicated by the fact that PFAS are still used today.

“It’s still our food packaging, it’s still in our clothes,” Barrilleaux said. “It’s still in all these consumer products. Knowing that because all of these chemicals never break down, all of this will eventually end up in our soil and in our water. It’s not a fun conversation to have with the public, but it’s important.”

Christy Remucal, a UW associate professor of civil engineering, is currently working on research at a site of extensive PFAS contamination in Marinette, Wisconsin to answer some of the mysteries surrounding PFAS. Remucal is bringing her focus to water chemistry to better understand the state of these chemicals in the environment and possible avenues of removal.

While other scientists have been studying PFAS for decades, Remucal said her current work surrounding PFAS is relatively new, as her project started Oct. 2019. Remucal wanted to start working on PFAS after they started being detected around Wisconsin.

“Seeing the needs of the state, there’s a lot of questions we have about these chemicals and we are well-positioned to answer some of them,” Remucal said.

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Remucal’s research focuses on seeing how PFAS groundwater contamination affects surface water contamination and the sediments in the water. The chemicals are everywhere in low concentrations, so taking precise samples is a key part of the process of understanding them, according to Remucal.

Remucal said the first few months of the project have consisted of coordinating their sites with the DNR, developing a methods strategy and collecting their first round of samples from Marinette. Looking at the levels of the chemicals in the sediment, she said, is important for remediation in the future.

“As far as scientists know, there are no natural [break down] processes that happen,” Remucal explained. “Depending on each chemical structure, some of them like to stick to the sediment.”

Remucal noted past studies of the traditional eight carbon PFAS, like PFOA and PFOS, revealed higher levels were typically found in sediment. She said comparing this information with how other PFAS stick to the sediment could allude to more information about newer PFAS. Real samples, she also said, would also reveal more than what could be done in a lab.

Remucal said while the DNR is looking at the regulatory perspective, this project will dive into the science to answer some of the unsolved fundamental questions about PFAS necessary to understanding how they make their way into the environment.

“I think our work will have implications in the state and as well as other locations … water is a fundamental right, you want to have clean drinking water,” Remucal said. “It’s a complicated issue and it’s scary for people to hear about.”