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February 23, 2020

1/16/2020 7:30:00 AM
Lake Tomahawk board hears question about PFAS

Brian Jopek
Lakeland Times Reporter

Recent issues the city of Rhinelander has experienced regarding per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination was the basis for a question posed to the Lake Tomahawk town board last week.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Lake Tomahawk resident Gary Sowatzka said he'd like to see the PFAS issue included in on a future town board agenda.

PFAS are man-made chemicals used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, fire-fighting foam, and products that resist grease, water and oil. Recent scientific findings indicate that exposure to certain PFAS may have harmful health effects in people. According to the EPA, exposure to some PFAS substances above certain levels may increase the risk of adverse health effects such as thyroid disease, low birthweights and cancer.

Over the last six months, the City of Rhinelander has shut down two of its municipal wells due to PFAS contamination.

"I was on the fire department for 14 years," Sowatzka said. "We did train in using the foam. It did go into the ground over there. You wouldn't think of the severity of that until you looked at what happened in Rhinelander."

Sowatzka suggested the town check the department's training records to see how often foam was used.

He also suggested testing the water in wells at the fire department, as well as the Raymond F. Sloan Community Center, for PFAS contamination.

"Then at that point, you'd know if you had anything else," Sowatzka said.

Town chairman George DeMet agreed.

"I think that's a good idea," he said.

"Well, it's a health issue with the severity that they have over there (in Rhinelander)," Sowatzka said.

"Well, the airport ..." DeMet began.

"That went a long way," Sowatzka said.

'Flourine's the problem'

Lake Tomahawk Fire Chief Doug Rehm told the Lakeland Times the foam is used primarily for vehicle fires.

"We also will use it on stubborn structure fires, but not extensively," he said. "Maybe not for initial knockdown of a fire, but to control it. It lets the water penetrate a fire."

Rehm said nearly all fire departments in the area, to his knowledge, have the capability to use foam in firefighting, some of them use it "almost automatically" at a fire scene.

When asked about how often the Lake Tomahawk Fire Department uses foam, Rehm said it's infrequent.

Some states, such as Washington, have banned the use of foam containing PFAS in favor of non-flourine foam.

"What I already have in the back of my mind is when we go to restock, we will go with the non-flourine stuff," Rehm said. "If we can get it. The flourine's the problem. What's gonna happen is all the stuff with the flourine's gonna get phased out and that'll come in at a national level."

He said the biggest problem is the military.

"Because of the amount of training they do with it," Rehm said. "When we train, we try not to use real foam."

He said dish soap is mixed with water in those instances.

"Because it'll give the same effect, but it's not going to work on a fire, obviously," Rehm said.

He said he's been following the topic and recently attended a meeting of area fire chiefs where firefighting foam containing PFAS was briefly discussed.

"I'm assuming Rhinelander will be switching to it (non-flourine foam) when they can get it," Rehm said. "Right now, there's no distributors that handle it."

In the meantime, he said there are no plans for the Lake Tomahawk to stop using foam.

"But, if a better product that doesn't have the contamination problems is available, we'd be more than interested in it if it's affordable," Rehm said.

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