The federal Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, announced new drinking water health advisories for PFAS chemicals today.
This comes just two days after Republican state lawmakers announced they will allow some regulations on the chemical here in Wisconsin.
PFAS, otherwise known as “forever chemicals,” are found in products such as firefighting foam and nonstick pans. These chemicals can cause a slew of health issues, such as developmental issues in children, decreased fertility, and an increased risk of some cancers.
PFAS has been found in all of Madison’s wells to varying degrees. Well 15 on Madison’s northside has been shut down for years due to high levels of PFAS, as city leaders wait for acceptable drinking water levels to take effect in the state.
On Monday, the Republican-controlled rules committee announced that they will allow statewide regulations on PFAS chemicals to go into effect. The regulations would set acceptable standards for PFAS contamination in drinking water.
Earlier this year, the conservative-majority Natural Resources Board approved standards for surface water of 20 parts per trillion, but rejected a similar standard for state groundwater. Ultimately, the board approved standards at the EPA recommended level at the time of 70 parts per trillion for our groundwater.
But even with the news that PFAS can be regulated, not everyone is happy. That includes Democratic Senator Melissa Agard of Madison, who believes that state lawmakers can do more to address the issue.
“We certainly have the chance to become the gold standard on water quality in our nation, but instead we continue to fall short. While I’m glad for the fact that Republican lawmakers are admitting to the fact that we need to do something, I also acknowledge that we have father to go in this conversation and I’m hopeful that people, regardless of party affiliation, can come together and work in earnest with the best science that’s available to address water quality for everyone in Wisconsin,” Agard says.
Then today, the EPA announced new, more stringent guidelines for PFAS contamination. . Those standards have a lower threshold for designating PFAS contamination than the standards approved by the state Natural Resources Board.
The new health advisories from the EPA replace those set in place by the agency in 2016, which warned of exposure of over 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. Now, the EPA is vastly reducing that to just 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA chemicals and0.02 for PFOS chemicals.
This is well below what is even detectable by the EPA at this time, and they say that action should be taken to address the chemicals as soon as they are detected.
In 2021, all of Madison’s 22 wells exceeded the level put in place by the health advisories. But new data still being processed suggests that now, only about a third of the city’s wells are above that threshold.
That’s according to Marcus Pearson with the Madison Water Utility, who says that although it’s hard to accurately detect PFAS at those levels, 2022 data on PFAS in Madison shows a drastic reduction in PFAS levels.
“The levels are so, so, so, so, so, so low, we are going to see those drastic variants, because all of these levels are basically undetectable so you are going to sometimes get a little detection. It’s not that simple, but pretty much all those are at zero, so sometimes it might register, and sometimes it might not register,” Pearson says.
WORT could not verify the new report, as the numbers are not yet released.
These new federal advisories are not regulations. The EPA says that the advisories are to give guidance to federal, state, and local officials to develop their own solutions.
Pearson says that nobody in the country can accurately detect those levels, meaning that while the advisory is useful, it will not result in any concrete changes.
“These are usually pretty shocking, usually very very low because it is just an advisory, and it does a good job at letting us know that this is a serious concern, and an issue. However, we don’t plan on the actual (cutoff) to be that low, it cannot be below detectable levels,” Pearson says.
Senator Agard says that this is just further proof that more can be done to address PFAS here in Wisconsin.
“There is new scientific information coming forward on a regular basis on the impacts they have on our environment, and on Wisconsinites, and on our natural resources. I think that we need to keep focusing on science based solutions and that this is something that we are going to keep learning more about as time goes by,” Agard says.
Madison Water Utility will hold a public meeting on June 30th at the East Madison Community Center, to discuss both well 15, as well as the new EPA advisories.
Christy Remucal, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineer at UW Madison, helped to break down the new advisories, and what they mean for both scientists and local governments.