State health officials are recommending groundwater quality standards for 22 substances found in Wisconsin waters, including pesticides and “forever chemicals.”
The Department of Health Services announced this month the suggested standards, which include 12 PFAS substances and six types of pesticides.
The Department of Natural Resources in 2019 suggested a list of 40 substances to the DHS for regulation, according to a DHS release, but because of limited health information for 18 of those substances, no standards were recommended.
“These recommendations demonstrate our ongoing commitment to ensuring clean, safe drinking water for Wisconsin residents,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said in a release. “With this essential information in hand, we continue our vital work to protect this precious resource.”
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of man-made chemicals used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities in products like clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam. The family includes 5,000 compounds, which are persistent, remaining both in the environment and human body over time. Accumulation of the chemicals in the body has been linked to cancer, studies have shown, or other adverse health effects.
The recommendation for standards for the 22 substances follows the beginning of the process to create standards for PFOA and PFOS, two of the more well-known PFAS compounds. The Natural Resources Board signed off on the recommendations for those two substances in January, saying that any combination of the compounds shouldn’t measure over 20 parts per trillion in any groundwater, surface water or public drinking water.
PFOA and PFOS are two of the most commonly recognized combinations, said Darsi Foss, administrator of the DNR’s environmental management division. A few of the compounds noted in this round of standards are also known to break down into PFOA and PFOS when introduced to the environment.
Once the recommendation is completed, the policy-setting arm of the DNR, the Natural Resources Board, will propose a rule to create the new standards via rulemaking, a process that takes several years. During that time, there will be several opportunities for the public and other groups to comment.
After being passed by the board, the rules will be handed over to the Legislature for approval.
The Natural Resources Board in October also passed a rule that is now pending the approval of the Legislature that prohibits companies that manufacture PFAS-containing firefighting foam from testing the substances without proper containment and treatment.
The rule allows fire departments to use foam containing PFAS during emergencies, such as for fires at airports or oil refineries, or in the case of testing facilities with proper ability to remove PFAS from the water that leaves the facility.
Rob Lee, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said the organization is glad to see regulations like these being proposed but said there is more work to be done in locating who is impacted by contamination and how to address it.
“Two-thirds of Wisconsin gets its drinking water from groundwater,” he said. “And we’re still not fully aware how widespread this contamination is.”
Midwest Environmental Advocates along with several other environmental groups this fall called on the state to begin testing all public drinking water systems for PFAS to find who is being impacted by the contamination, Lee said.
“It only works if we know there’s a problem,” he said. “People have the right to know their drinking water is safe.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.