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The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has confirmed high levels of 'forever' foam chemicals in Starkweather Creek where it empties into Lake Monona in Madison. (DNR photo). The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has confirmed high levels of 'forever' foam chemicals in Starkweather Creek where it empties into Lake Monona in Madison. (DNR photo).

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has confirmed high levels of 'forever' foam chemicals in Starkweather Creek where it empties into Lake Monona in Madison. (DNR photo).

By Laura Schulte February 19, 2021

No, bottled water doesn’t solve all problems for residents with PFAS-contaminated water

If Your Time is short

  • Many households within PFAS contamination areas are receiving bottled water to reduce their exposure to the chemicals

  • But water isn’t the only way people can be exposed to the chemicals, they can also be consumed through meat and produce harvested within the contaminated area

For years, Wisconsin has been grappling with "forever chemical" contaminations in some of its towns and cities, making it so residents can’t drink the water from their own wells. 

Those chemicals, known as PFAS -- per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances -- have been linked to all kinds of health risks, including types of kidney and testicular cancers, lower birth weights and harm to immune and reproductive systems.

PFAS, a large family of man-made chemicals, were once prized for their non-stick characteristics and were used to make non-stick pans, waterproof clothing and other items. They’re also commonly used in fast food wrappers, to keep the grease from leaking out.  

The chemicals accumulate in the body over time, meaning the more consumed via food or water, the more is stored in the body. 

In Wisconsin, the chemicals have ended up in the soil in many places -- including Marinettte, Peshtigo, Milwaukee and Madison -- due to the use and testing of fire fighting foam used to put out blazes involving gas.

In the communities dealing with those contaminations, many residents can no longer drink or cook with the water from their kitchen sink, forcing them to rely on weekly shipments of bottled water, paid for by the polluting party or, in some cases, the state Department of Natural Resources. 

Scott Manley, executive vice president for government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group, during a Jan. 31, 2020, interview about the chemicals on WKOW’s "Capital City Sunday" said that residents aren’t put at risk by the contamination if they’re getting the bottled water. 

"People who have wells that test for elevated levels of PFAS are currently being provided clean drinking water at the expense of the responsible party, so nobody’s health is at risk right now," he said. 

That stopped us.

Is it true that there is no risk to people within polluted areas if they’re receiving bottled water shipments for drinking and cooking? 

PFAS contamination extends beyond ground water, wells

Let’s start with some background.

One of the most well-known areas where bottled water has to be provided to residents is in Marinette and Peshtigo in northeastern Wisconsin. 

The PFAS in that area originated at the Tyco Fire Products firefighting foam testing facility, which saw outdoor testing of foam up until 2017. 

The foam was washed into sanitary sewers after testing, allowing PFAS to leach into the ground. The PFAS in the soil at the testing plant later leached out of the boundaries of the testing facility, carried by groundwater, and have been found in private wells across the area. 

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Tyco, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls, is paying to provide bottled water or water treatment systems to residents with PFAS in their wells above a certain level and has set aside money to work towards providing the residents with a water system for all affected in the future, in cooperation with the city of Marinette. 

When asked for backup to support Manley’s claim, Nick Novak, vice president of communications and marketing for WMC, essentially repeated what Manley said: 

"Parties responsible for elevated levels of specific PFAS substances have supplied affected communities with bottled water or water filtration systems in the near term while working closely with regulators and community members on long-term potable water solutions to ensure no one’s health or safety is put at risk." 

But environmental groups disagree with the assertion that no one’s health is at risk. And various studies also cite known concerns.

Carly Michiels, government relations director for Clean Wisconsin, noted that water is not the only thing affected by PFAS contamination.

"There are also considerations like the contaminated biosolids that have been spread on farm fields, or waterways that have contaminated the fish, which would all impact a person’s public health," she said. "Drinking water out of a tap is only one source of exposure in a large PFAS hotspot." 

Biosolids, or the sludge taken out of waste water treatment systems, is typically spread on farm fields, and PFAS can be found in soil in contaminated areas. 

Though not yet conclusive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is studying how crops can absorb PFAS, which could then be consumed and added to the accumulation of the chemicals in a person’s body. 

Studies in Wisconsin have shown that PFAS also accumulate in fish, which has resulted in the DNR issuing warnings about consuming fish from certain areas more than once or twice a month.

Fish in ponds in Marinette have shown elevated levels of PFAS, according to an October 2020 report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as fish in Madison lakes and even Lake Superior. Elevated levels of PFAS have also been found in the livers of deer in the Marinette area, prompting the DNR to issue consumption advisories for the organs, according to a September 2020 report in the Journal Sentinel

So even though residents may have access to clean water via deliveries of bottled water, there is still a risk of consuming contaminated produce, fish or meat from the area, which could contribute to a buildup of PFAS in the body. 

Our rating

Manley claimed that no one’s health is at risk if they’re receiving bottled drinking water due to contamination in their home’s water supply. 

While precautions put in place to provide safe drinking water have helped mitigate the problem in the short term, residents can still ingest PFAS through other means, such as meat or fish hunted from nearby land, or possibly even produce harvested from areas where PFAS are present in the soil. 

We rate the claim False.

 

 

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "What you should know about PFAS, of ‘forever’ chemicals, contamination drinking water in parts of Wisconsin," April 27, 2020

 

WKOW, "Capital City Sunday: Emergency order in place for now, new PFAS developments," Jan. 31, 2021

Email conversation with Nick Novak, Feb. 9, 2021

Email conversation with Carly Michiels, Feb. 9, 2021

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Testing food for PFAS and assessing dietary exposure," Feb. 10, 2021

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "DNR orders tests for ‘forever chemicals’ in fish harvested in Marinette, Peshtigo areas near firefighting foam facility," Oct. 19, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "PFAS chemicals found in elevated levels in Madison lakes," Jan. 22, 2021

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "State recommends limit on Lake Superior smelt consumption after high levels of PFAS found in the fish," Jan. 15, 2021


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "DNR advises against eating livers from deer harvested near PFAS-contaminated Marinette site," Sept. 15, 2020

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More by Laura Schulte

No, bottled water doesn’t solve all problems for residents with PFAS-contaminated water

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