Journal Times editorial: Let's keep 'forever chemicals' out of our water supply
Our Perspective

Journal Times editorial: Let's keep 'forever chemicals' out of our water supply

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Perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, are called “forever” chemicals because they don’t break down in the environment.

How much of one of those would you like in your glass of water?

Gov. Tony Evers has directed the DNR to propose standards in drinking water, groundwater and surface water, but that’s a two- to three-year process. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is working on national standards but has been criticized by environmental groups for its slow pace in this area.

Hopefully, more government agencies and private companies will follow the example of the Madison Fire Department, which announced Dec. 16 that it is no longer using firefighting foam containing PFAS.

All Madison fire trucks are now equipped with a foam that has been independently verified as PFAS-free, and it has contracted with a licensed disposal company to destroy its existing stock of fluorinated foam, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Knockdown brand foam can be used in most situations, including many house fires, where water would be ineffective, Fire Department spokeswoman Cynthia Schuster said.

“You don’t want to be splashing water on a grease fire,” Schuster said. “That’s why foam is such an essential element to our firefighting process.”

The department previously stocked a product known as FireAde that could be used on all types of fires and was deployed in July when an electrical transformer exploded at a downtown substation. Elevated levels of PFAS were later found in Lake Monona.

The decision comes amid growing concern about the prevalence of PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems and have been found in surface and groundwater across the state, including in 14 of Madison’s 23 municipal wells.

“They can move freely in the environment and that’s why they end up everywhere,” said Christy Remucal, an aquatic chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are going to be dealing with them for a really long time.”

Epidemiology studies suggest some PFAS compounds are associated with increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, thyroid disease, asthma, decreased fertility, some cancers and a decline in response to vaccines.

The DNR has ordered an assessment and cleanup of 31 sites, including General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, for a vast assortment of PFAS, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Dec. 30. The state Department of Health Service said last month it is considering conducting a cancer cluster assessment in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas after residents reported their stories of having cancer and other serious illnesses at a public meeting on Dec. 18.

An earlier DHS study found compounds flowing into Oak Creek and Wilson Park Creek, suggesting they are making their way to Lake Michigan.

Early testing found high PFAS levels at some sites where firefighting foam has been used by the airport, Air National Guard 128th Air Refueling wing and the 440th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve. The 440th left Milwaukee in 2007. According to the DNR, it is not yet known whether the military or the airport, or both, are responsible for the contamination.

Wisconsin is among a majority of states that have not set enforceable standards for PFAS in water, although Minnesota has limits in place and Michigan officials say new requirements will be in place next year.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has directed the DNR to propose standards in drinking water, groundwater and surface water — a process that will take two to three years.

Groups like Clean Wisconsin, an environmental group, have been supportive of a Democrat bill that would speed up the regulation of at least six PFAS compounds. The bill has yet to get a hearing in the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

We need state and national standards on PFAS as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, we urge companies and government agencies to take a close look at the chemicals they’re using and consider more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as the Madison Fire Department has done.

If we can’t count on PFAS to break down, we can’t count on them staying out of our water supply.

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