MADISON, Wis. (SPECTRUM NEWS) — Two Wisconsin bodies of water have tested positive for elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) according to tests from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Starkweather Creek in Madison and Silver Creek in Monroe County came back with the higher levels. The DNR said lower levels of contamination were found in three other state water bodies it tested.
PFAS is a man-made chemical developed to repel oil and water. It is used in various products such as fast-food wrappers, cosmetics, non-stick pans, and firefighting foams.
“Those same properties that make them very attractive for commercial uses are the same ones that make them problematic because they don't break down in the environment,” said Adrian Stocks, water quality bureau director at the WI DNR.
So when something like firefighting foam gets washed away or seeps into groundwater there isn't a way to remove it. It can just be diluted by entering a larger body of water or eventually break down over a long period of time.
“They also don't degrade in the environment, so that's why we kind of find them everywhere, they're really persistent which is a big problem,” said Christy Remucal, a UW-Madison professor researching PFAS.
The presence of PFAS becomes a problem because of negative health effects it can have on people. If ingested the chemical can lead to thyroid problems, fertility or birth issues, decreased immune response, and cancer.
Just like they are difficult to remove from water, they are difficult to remove from our bodies as well.
“Once they're sort of in our bodies for some of them it takes a long time for them to go away, they kind of build-up,” Remucal said.
The chemical can also bioaccumulate into the ecosystem, finding its way into fish tissue. The DNR is testing fish at each site that is tested for PFAS in water.
“At this point in time we can't really definitively say what concentration in the surface water may be reflected in the fish tissue,” Stocks said. The DNR hopes fish tissue results sometime in the next few months. “Until that time it's hard for me to predict whether or not eating the fish is safe.”
At Starkweather Creek, the DNR collected fish samples from the water's intersection with Lake Monona.
Tim Harbard was fishing there with a friend on Wednesday. He said he never eats the fish he catches — he's just there for fun — but he knows people who do.
He wishes there were more warnings near the spot that the tests were going on, even if they weren't completed.
“If it's going to affect people consuming it they need to like have an urgency about it and let people know,” Harbard said.
Stocks said as soon as the results come back they would act if they needed to. If the fish tissue came back positive for PFAS they would update the fish advisory database.
“Our expectation is based on the results that come back we'll evaluate those work collaboratively with (the Department of Health Services), and develop any updates to our fish consumption advisories based on those results,” Stock said.
Stocks recommends people check the advisory database before eating fish from any part of the state.
Remucal said the possibility that PFAS ends up in fish is a large concern not just in Wisconsin, but around the country and world. While the chemical has been around for decades, researchers like herself are just recently learning how present it is in waterways and ecosystems and what that could mean for people who live near there.
“We have a lot more questions than we have answers for, that's for sure,” Remucal said.
It's also a chemical that does not have many federal or state regulations surrounding it. Earlier this year Governor Tony Evers (D-Wisconsin) directed the DNR to come up with regulations.
“I really think it is important that we get out there and get standards in place so that we can effectively regulate these compounds to be protective of the environment and human health,” Stocks said.
The DNR has tested water near six known or suspected PFAS contamination places. Many around industrial areas or near airports. Both places that tested positive were near airports.
Stocks said they are working with facilities near there to clean up possible contamination sources and keep more PFAS from running into the water.
“We expect that some of this will sort of persist within the environment for a while, at this point the best thing we can do is to try to reduce whatever inputs are going into the environment,” Stocks said.
The DNR has also contacted 125 municipalities in the state to ask if they can test wastewater facilities for PFAS.