Elevated levels of toxic “forever chemicals” have been found in Madison-area lakes and along the Yahara River, causing the Department of Natural Resources to seek further testing.
The department announced Thursday afternoon that elevated levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were found in lakes Monona, Upper Mud, Waubesa and Kegonsa, as well as a section of the Yahara River. The chemicals were also found in lakes Mendota and Wingra, but at lower concentrations.
PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), one of the most well-researched in the family of compounds, was one of the most common compounds found during the DNR testing.
The DNR is now working on sampling tissue of fish harvested from the lakes, with results expected this spring. A PFAS advisory is already in place for the consumption of fish harvested from Starkweather Creek and Lake Monona, recommending limiting the consumption of bluegill to no more than once a week, and recommending the consumption of largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye and yellow perch no more than once per month. The advisory for those two lakes was issued in 2019.
PFAS 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.
PFAS have been linked to types of kidney and testicular cancers, lower birth weights, harm to immune and reproductive systems, and altered hormone regulation and thyroid hormones.
Though the substances have been found in Madison lakes, residents shouldn’t be worried about the chemicals in their drinking water, said Adrian Stocks, DNR Water Quality program director. Madison draws its drinking water from wells and not the lakes.
Swimming in the lakes shouldn’t be a concern, either, he said.
“Normal recreation contact isn’t of concern for PFAS because the compounds aren’t readily absorbed through the skin,” he said.
The DNR began sampling water from Madison’s lakes in 2019, following the discovery of elevated levels of PFAS at the Dane County Airport. The stormwater system from the airport discharges its water into Starkweather Creek, which eventually empties into Lake Monona near Olbrich Park. PFAS were found in Starkweather Creek from its headwaters northeast and east of the airport, throughout its entire length, the release said.
The PFAS stemming from the airport likely have multiple sources, the DNR said, and the agency is working with the responsible parties to discuss the next steps.
The DNR also recently issued a consumption advisory for Lake Superior, recommending that residents do not consume rainbow smelt more than once a month after tests revealed an elevated level of PFAS in their tissue.
Lawmakers in Madison expressed frustration at the news of the elevated chemicals and called for action from the DNR on curbing the spread of the chemicals.
Francesca Hong, the newly elected representative of the 76th Assembly District, which covers much of the Madison isthmus, urged immediate and decisive steps.
“We cannot let our lakes and rivers be poisoned nor can we risk the health of those in District 76 or across Wisconsin,” she wrote in a statement. “Contaminating parties must be held accountable and stringent measures must be implemented in order to eliminate the PFAS found in Lakes Mendota, Monona, Upper Mud, Waubesa and Kegonsa, as well as along sections of the Yahara River.”
Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, and Rep. Samba Baldeh, D-Madison, also urged lawmakers to take up PFAS legislation to protect residents of Wisconsin.
“Water is life. We must protect the health and safety of all in our community,” Agard said in a joint release. “This includes taking all the steps we can to ensure that our waterways are clean and that the wildlife that depend on it are protected. The results released by the DNR should serve as a wake-up call to the GOP as the realization of how pervasive this problem actually is.”
The Legislature has in the last several years taken up some legislation regarding the chemicals, including passing Act 101, which limited the use of fire fighting foam containing PFAS. A legislative committee recently stripped the rule of what many supporters said were key provisions of the measure, after pushback from business groups.
Agard and Baldeh both expressed support for the CLEAR Act, which was introduced in 2019 but failed to make it to a vote in early 2020. The act would have established standards for PFAS, as well as set regulations for disposal of the substances and granting more rule-making authority to the DNR.
“PFAS contamination problem is a statewide concern. Communities with both Republican and Democratic legislators have been deeply affected by these chemicals. Marinette, Madison, Eau Claire and Rhinelander are only a few of the communities adversely affected,” Baldeh said in the release. “The DNR has sent us all an unambiguous message: the time to act is now. Now it’s up to the legislature to do what must be done.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.