A month ago, in a ballroom at a hotel conference center in a Madison suburb, social distancing wasn’t even in the vocabulary of most people.
The coronavirus wasn’t yet a threat to Wisconsin. Hundreds of people packed into a convention to talk about, and hear about, a different threat to health--PFAS.
“It is the hot ticket issue right now,” conceded Bridget Kelly, the Wisconsin DNR’s Program Coordinator for Emerging Contaminants.
The topic is only growing hotter.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of manmade chemicals found in drinking water across the country, including in Rhinelander. They’re linked to health risks like thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and even cancer.
Chris Lilek, an Environmental Health Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, is also a hydrogeologist. She helped organize the crowded conference put on by the American Institute of Professional Geologists.
“I’m very proud of them for them to take the time to be interested,” Lilek said.
The PFAS-focused conference, in one respect, shined a light on how different the PFAS landscape is state-by-state in America.
For example, Michigan started identifying and dealing with PFAS issues much earlier than Wisconsin.
“We turn to Michigan as model for a lot of things because they’ve been on this path for a little bit longer than we have,” Kelly said. “We hear from the public that they find that website to be useful.”
Kelly was referring to a website compiling the work done by the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), a state government group that’s forcefully addressed contamination in the state.
The website includes a map of PFAS test results for every community water system in Michigan.
By contrast, Wisconsin doesn’t mandate testing for PFAS in drinking water. The state DNR has testing results for less than ten communities in the state.
Kelly pointed out Michigan has poured tens of millions of dollars into PFAS response. In Wisconsin, it’s closer to tens of thousands of dollars. The state has no similar map.
“Wisconsin would be interested in that kind of an initiative, but until we are allocated those funds, we don’t really have the opportunity to do that,” Kelly said. “I think that we would if we were allocated the funding.”
Wisconsin is taking action, however. The DNR is addressing drinking water contamination in places like Rhinelander. State-organized advisory groups work to find solutions.
But those groups and regulators do so without enforceable PFAS regulations at the state or federal level.
Some other states have numerical limits on PFAS in water, some don’t.
Ned Witte, an environmental lawyer at Godfrey and Kahn, said states are frustrated there isn’t more federal guidance. PFAS isn’t even designated as a hazardous substance by the EPA.
“Identifying PFAS as a hazardous substance would create some basis of normalcy across the country. Everyone would be playing by the same rulebook. Right now, as I was talking about this morning, we’re dealing instead with a real patchwork,” Witte said in an afternoon interview.
While Wisconsin, like most states, focuses mostly on PFAS in water, North Carolina is going even further.
“That’s one of the reasons why I’m here today and sharing our story that what you might think is solely a water issue may not be solely a water issue,” said Mike Abraczinskas, the director of the North Carolina Division of Air Quality.
His department found spikes in a PFAS-family compound called GenX in water near a chemical plant operated by Chemours, a DuPont spin-off.
Curiously, that contamination was found upstream of the plant’s location.
Abraczinskas’ scientists guessed the contaminant was being emitted into the air, then falling back to Earth as rainwater.
“There were no off-the-shelf methods for monitoring GenX in ambient air, so we had to get a little creative,” Abraczinskas said.
His team used five-gallon plastic buckets from a local hardware store. They collected rainwater, which confirmed what Abraczinskas hypothesized. PFAS in the air was leading to PFAS in rain, which meant PFAS was eventually getting into the groundwater.
“We’re not aware that anyone else in the United States did what we did in terms of PFAS compounds,” Abraczinskas said. “I think we were the first to do that in the U.S.”
The discovery led to $12 million in fines for Chemours. The company also agreed to provide house filtration, reverse osmosis, or other water purification for consumers in the area. Abraczinskas said the state still hadn’t found the “edge” of PFAS contamination caused by the plant.
That ballroom near Madison took home a message that PFAS is in the air. It’s in the water. But, according to event organizer Chris Lilek, it’s in the consciousness of smart and motivated people, state by state, person by person.
“The excitement is there,” she said. “Let’s continue to do this right, getting the people together, listening, listening, listening.”
February’s conference hosted by the American Institute of Professional Geologists was the second in Wisconsin to focus on PFAS.