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DNR & DHS Team Up for ‘Safe Water for All’ Campaign to Address Drinking Water Containments


The Wisconsin Departments of Natural Recourses and Health Services want water safety to be on people’s mind.

There are three containments that pose a threat to private and public drinking water in Wisconsin.

“It’s troubling at this stage of the game, while we’re still fighting a pandemic that is seeing a resurgence, that there’s still communities across the state of Wisconsin that are encumbered by lead laterals, PFAS in the water as well as nitrates,” said DNR Secretary Preston Cole.

The state’s environment and health agencies are working together to address each of these issues.

As part of a panel announcing the Safe Water for All Campaign, DNR Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs was confident Wisconsin’s history of environmental standards would help them tackle these issues.

“Here’s the bottom line, in Wisconsin we don’t just talk about environmental problems we solve them,” said Ambs. “The solutions are there. We know what we need to do address these challenges. All we have to do is have the will to do them.”

Some of the solutions have been around for a long time, the funding and ability to accomplish them needs to catch up.

Lead contamination for example, Jim Zellmer with the DNR said they’ve seen with the state program that offered money to assist with the removal of lead service lines in communities.  67 municipalities have applied for 40 million dollars of the 63 million dollars available.

But Zellmer says it won’t be enough until there’s no traces of lead in the water.

“EPA set a goal for lead in drinking water for zero because lead can be harmful to human health at low exposure levels,” said Zellmer. “The best way to reduce exposure to lead in the drinking water is to completely remove lead-containing pipes and fixtures from our drinking water systems.”

When it comes to things like Nitrates, the DNR and DHS are working with those in the agricultural industry to reduce the levels in wells.

The DNR estimates 10% of private wells in the state have nitrate levels above the health standard.

Zellmer says the estimate is likely on the low side, since majority of people have not had their wells tested.

“As with lead, we can’t see, taste, or smell nitrate in our waters so the only way to know our well water contains excessive levels of Nitrate is by collecting a sample for lab testing,” he said.

While newer concern to health and environmental experts, PFAS has been found in more than 50 sites across Wisconsin.

Cole said even with much of the PFAS-related measure removed from Governor Evers budget, the agencies has responsibility to keep tackling the issue.

“Rhinelander, Peshtigo, Marinette, Dane County. That’s what’s keeping the fire burning in our gut around clean drinking water. Todd gave an eloquent diagnosis of where we’ve been on clean drinking water,” said Cole. “It’s just who we are. It’s who this agency is and who this legislature is and who this Governor is.  While their politics will be their politics, we have work to do as agency officials to make sure that we keep clean water in front of everybody.”

As the agencies work to solve these issues, they encourage regular water testing to help mitigate the health effects of these containments.

DNR and DHS will be holding a series of webinars focused on the leading drinking water containments and their impact on your health.

Safe Water For All Panel Series

Sowing The Seeds For Safe Water

Water gives us life and grows our food. Yet today, many of those who grow our food can't drink their water. Learn how farmers and agriculture business leaders are using science to advance innovative solutions for safe water. Hear new ideas for policies, technologies and practices that protect water and strengthen the economy.

Threats On Tap: Marginalized Communities At Risk

While the Safe Drinking Water Act guarantees all Wisconsinites access to clean, drinkable water, not everyone can safely turn on the tap. The United States has remarkable water systems, developed over two centuries of technological, institutional and economic advances. However, the benefits of those systems have not been equally felt across the state. Water systems that serve marginalized areas –communities of color, low-income communities and rural communities – are more likely to be unsafe. Hear about the efforts to understand and to secure safe and affordable drinking water for every community.

Protecting the People: Safe Drinking Water For All

Wisconsin has a long history of protecting the state’s waters and even led the nation in drinking water protection with the passage of the 1983 groundwater law. Approximately two thirds of people living in Wisconsin get their drinking water from groundwater. Adequate supplies of uncontaminated groundwater are crucial not only for our health but also for our breweries, agricultural operations and cutting-edge industries in Wisconsin. Hear how Wisconsin is working to protect your health and what you can do to get involved.

The dates for the panels have not been announced.

Be In The Know


PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of human-made chemicals used for decades in numerous products, including non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and certain types of firefighting foam.

These contaminants have made their way into the environment through spills of PFAS-containing chemicals, discharges of PFAS-containing wastewater to treatment plants and certain types of firefighting foams.

PFAS has been found at more than 50 sites across Wisconsin. There is a growing public health concern over PFAS — which do not occur naturally and are widespread in the environment. They are found in people, wildlife and fish all over the world. Because PFAS do not break down easily in the environment, and some PFAS can stay in the body for a long time, they are referred to as forever chemicals.

Scientists are still learning about the health effects from PFAS exposure, but studies indicate that some PFAS can cause adverse reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects. More limited findings show links to cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.


Lead contamination in public water supplies is a health concern. As the crisis in Flint, Mich., demonstrated, exposure to lead from aging water pipes is an urgent issue that requires an immediate and proactive approach.

Lead plumbing is more likely to be found in apartments and homes constructed before 1986. Lead-service lines may contribute as much as 75% of the lead found in drinking water in older homes. According to DHS, because of the number of older homes in Wisconsin — and aging faucets, fixtures and pipes — children living in Wisconsin are at higher risk for lead poisoning than children in many other states.

The latest report on Childhood Lead Poisoning in Wisconsin found that 5% of the children tested were blood poisoned. African American children accounted for the highest percent of children poisoned (50%) compared to Caucasian (25.2%), Hispanic (17.8%), Asian (5.9%) and American Indian/Alaskan Native (1.0%).

Exposure to lead has been linked to adverse health effects, including developmental delays, behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, hearing problems, and anemia in infants and young children.

Lead exposure is also linked to cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension, impaired kidney function, and reproductive problems in adults and can result in serious health impacts to pregnant mothers.


Nitrate is Wisconsin’s most widespread groundwater contaminant, according to Wisconsin’s Groundwater Coordinating Council. Nitrate contamination of groundwater is increasing in extent and severity across the state. Today, nitrates are at levels of concern in 74 public drinking water systems and that more than 10% of private wells have high levels of nitrate levels.

Nearly 90% of nitrate in groundwater is due to agricultural activities, including manure spreading and fertilizer application. Other common sources of nitrate include septic systems and sewage treatment practices.

Nitrate dissolves easily in water and does not adsorb onto the soil. It can easily be carried into the groundwater by rainwater and melting snow as they make their way through the soil and bedrock into the underlying aquifer.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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