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Digging Deeper: PFAS Water Contamination

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PFAS (Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances)
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Water faucet
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Groundwater
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Lab microscope
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Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene
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PFAS testing results

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - A man-made chemical called PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, is a rising cause for concern around Wisconsin as the Department of Natural Resources discovers more water contamination.

PFAS are found in thousands of daily use products.

Primarily, they're related non-stick coating or waterproofing. They're also found in certain firefighting foams.

It's easy for PFAS products to cause contamination.

"In using those, and then washing those away, you know the rain comes and washes them away, they then get into our surface water which potentially gets into our groundwater," Carol Drury with the La Crosse County Health Department said.

"They're a concern at very low levels. In the parts per trillion. One part per trillion is like one drop of water in an Olympic size pool," John Storlie said, an environmental consultant with The OS Group.

PFAS consumption has a wide variety of health impacts.

"[It] Causes hormone disruption in humans and animals, it causes cancer, in very low levels," Storlie said.

"It can affect they're (kids) growing and learning, it can potentially affect a woman and her chances of trying to get pregnant, it can increase your cholesterol," Drury said.

The chemical is of extra concern because it isn't easy to get rid of.

"They don't break down very much so they're known as forever compounds because they will be in the world forever," Erin Mani, The Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene Organic Chemistry Lab Supervisor said.

PFAS aren't completely indestructible, but eliminating them isn't easy. The microscopic chemical would need to be collected together and tossed into an incinerator where it would burn for a couple of hours at several thousand degrees.

Because of the PFAS elimination process's complexity to complete statewide, the Wisconsin DNR is focusing on limiting instead. "Currently there are no state regulatory standards for PFAs. So we've embarked on setting standards in groundwater, groundwater enforcement standards, our public drinking water standards, and also our surface water quality standards," Jim Zellmer, Deputy Administrator for the Wisconsin DNR said.

Part of that process is happening inside the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene: One of only two labs in Wisconsin Capable of testing for PFAS. They're just beginning to uncover the scope of the problem.

"There's over 6,000 of these PFAs chemicals. Some are worse than others," Mani said. Unfortunately, they can't test for them all. "There's not really a way to test for 6,000 chemicals in one sample. In just the 36 that we have, there's quite a variety. Some don't want to go through chemicals in certain ways, some stick to columns so even finding the ones that we have and getting a method just to do that number of them is very difficult, it's taken us almost a year."

"It takes a while to actually look for everything," Brandon Shelton, a chemist testing PFAS at the state lab said. "It's not just a few couple hours in a day, it takes a while."

The lab began testing in May. Now, they're full speed ahead.

"Currently half the department is doing the PFAs testing so that's four full-time people," said Mani.

Results are coming in. The lab has been testing drinking water, groundwater, soil samples, and fish from areas where PFAS contamination is suspected. Together, the results will point to a cause. "They can eventually show hot spots. So there are high concentrations here because of reason X. Firefighting foam, whatever, we just don't know yet. But based on that they can say here's the likely culprit and then here's what we can maybe do about it," Shelton said.

Testing has found two PFAS contamination sites in La Crosse. One in City Well 23 and another in City Well 24. The city has hired an independent research firm to dig into the cause of the contamination and find out how extensive the problem is. Their research plan is slated for approval in late January. Read more about where the La Crosse contamination came from and what the plan is moving forward here.

Amber Meyer

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