MARINETTE — Wisconsin state lawmakers were updated on the issue of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) Thursday at a public hearing for the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality held at UW-Green Bay, Marinette Campus. 

The Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality has been created to gather information and make policy recommendations to better assess and improve the quality of both surface water and groundwater in the state of Wisconsin, the task force’s website states. The task force is made up of a 16 state lawmakers, 12 of which are state senators and four are state representatives.

The task force is currently traveling across the state and holding public meetings in various municipalities.

At Thursday’s public hearing, representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the American Chemistry Council, Johnson Controls and Stop Poisoning Our Water (S.O H2O) all spoke on the topic of PFAS contamination within Marinette County, around Wisconsin and in the nation as a whole.

The emerging contaminant family of compounds known as PFAS is a group of substances that can be found in common household products such as stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products and firefighting foams, but can have detrimental health affects for those who consume it. PFAS in the Marinette County area originates from Johnson Controls-owned Tyco, through chemical testing and training at their local testing site in Marinette, and has contaminated a number of private wells in the Town of Peshtigo area, biosolids from the cities of Marinette and Peshtigo, fields which had the biosolids spread on them and local groundwater and surface water to the southeast of the facility and a few other locations.

“Researching PFAS is kind of like listening to a song on the radio and saying ‘I love this new musical group,’ only to learn that it’s their sixth album and they have been touring for over 20 years,” said Darsi Foss Wisconsin DNR Division Administrator of Environmental Management. “That’s kind of what PFAS is, it’s been around for a long time, but the reason it’s now emerging is because we finally have the analytical capabilities to figure out where these are in the environment.”

The American Chemistry Council was represented by Jessica Bowman, who said there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of different types of PFAS, but not every type is used. 

Foss said that scientists are still learning about the health risks linked to PFAS but several have already been linked to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)  and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), two types of PFAS compounds, thus far. PFOA and PFOS  are some of the most commonly used PFAS compounds. Some health risks include decreasing fertility in women of child-bearing age, effects on a person’s immune system and impacting the effectiveness of vaccines. 

“The bottom line is that the health risks of all PFAS’s is not known,” Foss said. Women, fetuses and children are at greatest PFAS-related health risks.

“It’s really important that when we talk about PFAS chemistry, we cannot take what we know of PFAO and PFOS and apply it to every type of PFAS,” Bowman said.

The most common exposure to PFAS is through ingestion, drinking and eating PFAS contaminated food and water. Eating plants and animals, such as fish, who drink or live in PFAS-contaminated water can also cause health problems.

There is currently no enforceable standards on how to handle PFAS and how much a company can use, Foss said. The EPA currently has a standard of 70 parts per trillion, but Foss said this is not a law and cannot be enforced. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently researching the substances, but Foss said it would be a long time before it creates a federal standard.

She said Wisconsin should not wait for the EPA to create a federal standard because the EPA said it would be announcing at the end of this year if it would even begin the process to develop standards. Foss said the DNR estimates that it will be several years before the EPA develops standards for this issue.

“It could be anywhere between five to 10 years if we waited for EPA to develop a standard for drinking water,” she said. Foss said the EPA won’t determine if there is enough data to begin making rules for surface water until 2021 and the EPA does not make standards for groundwater, soil or sediment.

“People are saying ‘please wait for EPA, they’re working on it,’ but EPA said in their action plan that they won’t tell us if there is enough research to begin rule making for surface water, so we’re moving ahead and doing it,” Foss said.

Roy Irving, Department of Health Services, said that his department is able to change federal standards when new research supports a change.

“Even if there is a federal number, we are allowed to recommend a different number as long as there is a significant degree of technical information that is scientifically valid and has not been considered by the federal regulators,” he said.

“There is a federal number for PFOA, that is the EPA lifetime advisory of 7 parts per trillion,” Irving said. “There is some technical information not considered by the EPA when that standard was made.”

He said some of this technical information includes how PFOA exposure affects infants who are breast feeding, while the EPA only considered exposure to fetuses still in the womb. “We need to consider how it affects infants while they are in the womb and while they are breast feeding,” Irving said.

Irving said it is the DHS recommendation that PFOA and PFOS be combined in regulations because they have similar health effects, so that the standard be 20 parts per trillion for both compounds combined.

“I’ve been aware of the PFAS issue but today for the first time, I’m rattled. I’m concerned,” said Rep. Timothy Ramthun, R-Campbellsport. He asked if the “side-effects” of PFAS are worth using them at all, saying “I have to ask the question: If this stuff is so bad, it decreasing fertility, impacts the effectiveness of vaccines, what would be the effect of banning PFAS? Why not get rid of it? If we’re killing ourselves slowly why do we allow ourselves to degrade our environment and our lives?”

This series of questions was met with applause from the audience, but was ultimately left unanswered.

Ramthun went on to say that he believes there should be legislation to require blood testing to also test for PFAS contamination in the state of Wisconsin. 

Doug Oitzinger, former Marinette mayor and a member of S.O H20, later in the meeting said if Ramthun puts forward a bill to require blood tests to test for PFAS, he should ensure the legislation also requires health insurance companies to cover such testings.

There are over 20 PFAS-contaminated areas in the State of Wisconsin, but Peshtigo and Marinette have some of the highest levels of PFAS in the state, Foss said.

Foss explained that PFAS has been found in private ponds, rivers and wells offsite around Tyco facilities. Johnson Controls has taken samples from 168 private wells in the vicinity of Marinette and Peshtigo. 58 of these wells tested positive for PFAS and 16 exceeded the EPA recommended standard,” Foss said.

Later in the meeting Scott Wahl of Johnson Controls and Michael Bedard of Arcadis went over several steps that Tyco has taken once the PFAS contamination left the Tyco facility sites.

Bedard said Tyco has taken a proactive role in cleaning up PFAS. It has collected over 22,000 samples of drinking water from local residents, held over 100 public meetings and taken over 2,700 phones calls on a hotline made specifically for PFAS concerns.

“When we announced that the we would sample private wells, we immediately offered bottled water for residents,” he said. It allowed residents without contamination to continue getting water bottles, Bedard added.

Tyco is also looking into finding a way to provide a permanent water solution to the residents of Peshtigo, such as municipal water. Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality Vice-Chair Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, asked if Tyco was paying the costs to provide new water supply to Peshtigo and Wahl said it is.

“Tyco is committed to doing a lot of things, and a lot of things simultaneously,” Bedard said.

The number of PFAS found in the United States as a whole has declined in the past several years because the U.S. and Japan have voluntarily withdrawn from manufacturing the substances. However, the U.S. still imports products that use the compounds from elsewhere, such as China, Bowman said.

However, Shankland said even if the overall number has been on a decline, there are still people who’s lives and water are impacted by PFAS today.

Oitzinger told the task force there is a “major pollution problem in this state” and there is currently no enforceable standards to protect citizens’ water. He urged the task force to cross party lines to pass legislation to begin regulating PFAS.