With many residents interested in learning more about the man-made chemicals detected recently in a Rhinelander municipal well, MSA Professional Services of Rhinelander held a timely presentation Thursday on PFAS.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and products that resist grease, water and oil. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to higher cholesterol, lower female fertility, lower infant birthweights, and other health risks, according to public health experts.
Late last month, the city of Rhinelander announced municipal well No. 7 has been taken offline due to PFAS contamination.
Thursday's presentation, viewed simultaneously across MSA's offices, was led by Jayne Englebert, a senior hydrogeologist in MSA's Baraboo office.
It was originally intended for company use only, but because of the recent announcement that PFAS had been detected in municipal well #7, company officials decided to open the presentation to members of the city council and media.
Also in attendance was R.T. Krueger, president of Crandon-based Northern Lake Service, Inc., which provides analytical laboratory and environmental services and is currently testing drinking water samples from Rhinelander and Crescent Springs.
Krueger discussed the science that goes into seeking the presence of a chemical compound in a water sample measured in parts per trillion.
Alderperson Lee Emmer, who works for MSA, and alderperson Steve Sauer, represented the city at the presentation. The mayor and other alderpersons had planned to attend but had other commitments, Emmer reported.
As part of the online seminar, Englebert explained the requirements a person must go through for 48 hours before conducting water tests. The stringent rules cover everything from the clothing they wear and how it is laundered to the use of cologne, suntan oil and bug spray.
There are even rules as to what they can eat.
The goal is to have whoever collects the sample have as little extraneous chemicals on them as possible, she explained.
Due the complexity of the tests to find PFAS, cross- contamination, due to lax standards, is always a concern, Krueger agreed.
"I think that with every environmental compliance sampling, you need to be conscientious and aware of what might contaminate these things (samples)," Krueger said. "You need to use good sampling practice. But the fact of the matter is, I have a hard time believing it's going to jump off a clipboard into a sample. We've done a lot of these, we've seen very, very little cross-contamination."
Something as simple as washing your hands or not can cause "a lot of awkward extra steps in the lab," he added.
"You have much more opportunity to cross-contaminate by doing that than using sensible, good sampling techniques. Avoid things that are obvious, like the bug dope and the sunscreen and things like that," he said. "Good laboratory technique, even though we are talking about tremendously low levels, we saw very few detects in the blanks."
The most important thing is minimizing the "other things that the sample can come into contact with," he explained.
"Obviously, the challenges are going to be greater when you're doing groundwater samples where you have to get it (the sample) out through something. There you're going to have to take major precautions and probably do some field testing to make sure you have clothing that is PFAS clean," Krueger said.
But, he noted, some of the restrictions are "overkill."
"The more complicated you make the process, the more opportunities you have to potentially contaminate," Krueger said, noting that many of the standards and requirements governing testing for PFAS are administered by the Department of Defense (DOD).
As Englebert explained in her presentation, PFAS were first identified and studied on military installations, so DOD scientists have had the most experience with the compounds.
"What we present here (at these MSA Training Sessions) is given to us so we are all aware," Emmer said. "I don't think anybody could meet all those standards (48-hour decontamination protocol) for one test session, I don't think anybody expects it. But, then again, when you're dealing in parts per trillion, that is infinitesimally small."
Both Englebert and Krueger said the standards of the lab, and the testing procedures they use, are critical to producing reliable test results.
"The application of the methods affect the results," Krueger said. "Because the methods were designed for a very specific thing, and we're pushing the envelope on that. The application of the methods, as it deals with current drinking water testing, are appropriate. When you start talking about the modifications, most laboratories are using 547 (method) and 'M' for other things. The modifications aren't big, but the fact is, we are not allowed by statute, to cite a 500 method for anything other than drinking water."
As an example, Krueger said the "M" comes into play when regulators ask for testing for two other compounds beyond the standard drinking water test panel because they aren't listed in the original method. Since 2013, his lab has tested approximately 15,000 samples, he noted.
"The vast majority are drinking waters, but we have been involved in some mediation projects where they have applied that 'M' method to surface waters and ground waters because there is nothing else that exists, no other methodologies that exist," Krueger said. "I think that is a really, really good method if it is applied appropriately. You start to push that out and do 34 or 27 more compounds, it starts to push the limits of the methodologies."
He said the results for each compound tested for in a sample must be validated separately within the methodologies used to collect the sample. This rules out possible cross-contamination of the sample.
"You have to go through a major scientific study to show that the preparation process and the analytical process are legitimately capturing those compounds," Krueger said. "And that's when it becomes very difficult."
At the same time, he said the standards for the results is evolving "every single minute." There is no federal standard yet for PFAS, and Wisconsin is working on setting its own standards for what is allowable, so what yardstick is used to determine dangerous levels is a moving target.
Krueger was asked if a national PFAS standard from the Environmental Protection Agency would help.
"That's not something that's going to happen," he said.
"Every regulatory agency in the country is running in a different direction with this," Krueger said, adding the state will probably put a unified standard in place before the EPA.
"Honestly, what I think we should be doing is gathering information, using the tried and true tests on the proven analytes, rather than trying to make these giant lists of things."
He also said that investigations should be conducted to find out where the chemicals are "and what the relevance of them are."
"Because nobody knows. You start putting limits that are 17, and you starting putting tiny amounts together and you can exceed 17 by having extremely low detects that do become less certain," Krueger said. "Every analytical method has limitations on the bottom end of what you can see. And if you start trying to put regulatory weight measurements that are extremely small, and then adding those extremely low measurements together, I think that is dangerous ground."
Emmer and others in attendance agreed that the information that Englebert shared was very complicated and the lack of consistent standards is problematic.
"It's all just speculation right now," Emmer said. "But it's things to be aware of. And it's things that we are going to end up wanting to be aware of."
Emmer said Englebert based her presentation on PFAS: Life Cycle, Regulations and Solutions, which was presented by the Wisconsin Section of the American Institute of Professional Geologists in Pewaukee on May 23
"Jayne attended and brought back what she learned to share with the rest of us at MSA via our internal Continueing Education Program," Emmer said.
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