In the course of just over an hour Tuesday afternoon, experts on per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) provided an in-depth look at the chemicals that prompted City of Rhinelander officials to shut down two municipal wells last year.
Taking part in the panel discussion, which was held via Zoom, were R.T. Krueger, president of Northern Lake Service laboratory in Crandon; Clara Jeong, Ph.D., toxicologist with the Bureau of Occupational and Environmental Health, Wisconsin Division of Public Health; Jim Tinjum, Ph.D., associate professor and Director of the Geological Engineering Program, University of Wisconsin; Todd Troskey, BS, RS, environmental health specialist at Oneida County Health Department; James Yach, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary's Director for Northern Wisconsin and Chris Saari, DNR Northern Region Remediation and Redevelopment program supervisor.
The forum was hosted by a citizen's group assembled by Rhinelander mayor Chris Frederickson last year after the city took municipal wells 7 and 8 offline.
Yach started the discussion with a presentation on the basics of the compounds, which number over 4,000 - all man-made.
"They have been in commercial and industrial applications since the '40s, maybe even the early '40s, and they've continued in production in some form even to this day," Yach said.
He said common usage of PFAS include food wrappers, non-stick pans, waterproof boots and clothing, Staingard, and fire- fighting foam. He said the main applications are to repel water and keep things from sticking together.
"Some of the compounds you might hear, PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHXS, Gen X, these are all different compounds of PFAS you may hear about as this discussion progresses today, and on the news," Yach said.
He noted that the compounds can be either long or short chain, with the majority of the attention being given to the long chain variety.
"There is less known and little information available about the short chain compounds," Yach said. "But they certainly are being looked at."
PFAS are considered an "emerging contaminant," he added.
"What that means is it is a contaminant or issue that has raised some suspicion over the course of the years but it's just now picking up attention due to its effects," Yach explained.
He also noted that PFAS bioaccumulate, which means the chemicals will be absorbed if consumed and the levels will continue to accumulate as more is ingested.
"It is not known to break down in the environment, it's known to persist for many, many years," Yach said. "And there are some certain concerns to human health about PFAS, which we will hear about later.
The compound has also turned up in studies of tissue samples taken from deer, fish, eagles and waterfowl, he added.
Yach also noted that there are no formal federal or state guidelines for what is considered a safe amount of PFAS one can consume. The Environmental Protection Agency has a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for both PFAS and PFOS at this time. The state Department of Health Services has a more conservative allowance of 20 parts per trillion.
"To get an idea of what 70 parts per trillion looks like, yes it is a very small amount," Yach said. "We're talking four drops off an eyedropper into an Olympic-size pool. And that is the health advisory level, and that's just for two of the 4,000+ PFAS compounds."
Yach also noted that Gov. Tony Evers' executive order #40, issued last year, tasks the DNR to work with the department of health services to establish a public information website, collaborate with municipalities and wastewater treatment plants on screening programs and identifying potential sources of PFAS, identify and publish fish consumption advisories, establish regulatory standards to protect public health and explore ways to tap environmental damage funds to help compensate people affected by PFAS contamination.
"What I want everybody to take away is that PFAS is a man-made compound, it persists in the environment, it's very prevalent, it's used in thousands of manufacturing and items worldwide and we're just now finding and testing for it in various different fashions, be it in wildlife, fish and in the ground and drinking water," Yach said. "It is an emerging contaminant, so this is going to continue in the headlines probably for the next 50 to 100 years, if I had to guess."
Tinjum said one of the problems with PFAS is the chemicals can travel a long way once they reach underground water.
"Our concern is where we believe it is, we just need to find what levels it is at and the fate in transport of those compounds once we possibly identify some sources," Tinjum said. "Fate in transport is that scientific term that once we know where a compound originates, whether it's a landfill or a lagoon, the fate means how it moves through the environment, whether it degrades, whether it sticks to an organic compound, how fast it travels through the environment."
Because the compounds have been used in so many products over the years, it's common for measurable levels to be found in humans.
"Most people in the United States have some measurable levels in our body," Jeong said. "So yes it's a very common thing we can find in our body."
She said current research shows that an acute exposure to PFAS does not occur with just one exposure.
"Because PFAS can stay in our body for many years, and because PFAS are ubiquitous in our environment, it is important to reduce our overall exposure to PFAS to prevent them from building up in our body," Jeong said. "Because we do see (negative) health effects when it does go to the higher levels."
She said DHS is working to determine what level of daily intake of fish and water is considered safe, in terms of the presence of PFAS and PFOA compounds.
She said DHS is also working on new groundwater standards for both compounds to make sure that drinking water is safe.
"In general, PFAS can affect everyone, regardless of the age group, when it comes to high levels or long-term exposure," Jeong said.
Frederickson went through the history of the city's response to the discovery of the compounds in water taken from wells 7 and 8 and how each was taken offline once high levels of PFAS were revealed via testing of samples.
"I look forward to working with the team that is on today, the DNR, the department of health, Dr. Tinjum and the rest," Fredrickson said. "They're fabulous people who have a fair amount of understanding to a lot of understanding on these issues."
Tinjum said that testing of private wells is something that will have to be done, but finding ways to treat water to remove the compounds is both expensive and difficult. He said a better approach is to find the source of the contamination and either remove it or contain it so the PFAS can no longer reach the ground water.
"Once they get out of the barn, those cows are really hard to get back in," Tinjum said.
Troskey said that most simple water filtration systems, which primarily use activated charcoal, have various degrees of success. Homeowners should consult with an expert before settling on any system, he noted.
"There is not going to be one or two filters that are going to be recommended, there's a lot of filters out there," Troskey said. "The idea is that whatever filter you might be considering, based on your own personal research or hiring a water professional, is to make sure the manufacturer is going to be providing some level of assurance as far as how much water you might be using at any given time and how long that filter is going to last."
Krueger, whose lab has done the majority of the lab tests for the city, said the cost of having a private well tested is not low.
"I know there is going to be sticker shock associated with this, especially for people who may have an annual chloroform test or something like that," Krueger said. "The cost for these (PFAS) tests are in the range of $350."
Tinjum reiterated that the source of the contamination needs to be determined so that proper remediation can take place.
"I don't want to scare the community, but then, at the same time, I will, is that a PFAS plume, or basically how large an area of contamination can be, can be very large, upwards of miles away from that source area," Tinjum said. "PFAS is not like a lot of contaminants that we're used to dealing with that once we find where that source of contamination starts, we can get our hands around it because it is a smaller area. But basically PFAS moves with water almost as fast as groundwater is flowing through the system."
He said likely sources are old landfills, places where fire-fighting foam has been used, or where wastewater treatment plant sludge has been spread.
Between 1988 and 1992, the city disposed of sludge from the wastewater treatment plan in an area northwest of where the wells were later drilled. However, no testing has been done to ascertain whether it was the sludge that contaminated the wells. The DNR, in a "responsible party letter" to the airport, city and county, has cited the firefighting foam the airport is mandated to have on hand as a probable source of the contamination.
Pauli said the city will most likely have to locate a site for a new well, if not two, that is not anywhere near where the two contaminated wells.
Tinjum was asked how long the remediation process would take and if the city could expect to receive any financial assistance to accomplish this.
"We're in the first phase of this, and my recommendation going forward is to be proactive to try to find the source area of the contaminants and funding from the state to do some exploratory programs would be appreciated to help that," he said.
The group is planning to hold another informational forum at 2 p.m. June 2.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews online.com.
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