Wisconsin Governor Pushes State To Address ‘Forever Chemicals’

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers applied renewed pressure on state agencies Tuesday to address the problem human-made chemicals that contaminate the water table and threaten human health. 

Per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS) – also known as “forever chemicals” for their resistance to dissolution  – are chemical compounds that can be found in non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays, a number of household cleaning products and certain types of firefighting foam.

In a press release Tuesday, Evers announced he was directing the state’s Department of Natural Resources to “take additional efforts” to address the dangerous compounds.

“I am committed to protecting our state’s natural resources and ensuring every Wisconsinite has access to clean drinking water,” Evers said in the release.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these chemicals have been in circulation in the U.S. since the 1940s. The agency has set health advisory levels for the chemicals at 70 parts per trillion for lifetime exposure in drinking water.

Epidemiological studies have found that forever chemicals are linked to increased cholesterol levels, low birth weights, decreased fertility, thyroid disorders and some cancers.

The compounds can make their way into the environment in a number of ways, but chiefly do so through biodegradation and ordinary disposal of consumer products, and during accidental spills of PFAS-containing materials. 

A major concern with PFAS is how they can seep into the water table and end up in ground, surface and drinking waters. They can also be found in the tissue and blood of fish and wildlife, including those consumed by people.

On Tuesday, Evers announced amendments to administrative codes establishing or upgrading the Wisconsin’s standards for surface water, groundwater and drinking water, including setting discharge limitations for certain forever chemicals.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources will spearhead the efforts to rein in PFAS and will work in conjunction with the state’s Department of Health Services, which will use science-based approaches to set and enforce the new standards.

Department of Natural Resources Secretary-designee Preston Cole stressed in Tuesday’s release that “we cannot live without clean drinking water. It is too important for human existence.”

Tuesday’s statements prodding state agencies to action came five days after Evers signed an executive order relating to the public health risks of PFAS. The governor also enforced stricter standards regulating the chemicals this past June.

Evers is shooting for is a measurement of 20 parts per trillion for lifetime exposure in state water supplies, well below the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion advisory.

Evers’ executive order declared 2019 “The Year of Clean Drinking Water,” and creates a state PFAS Coordinating Council, which is charged with establishing regulatory standards in collaboration with municipalities and local water works and treatment plants.

The order states that more than four million Wisconsinites rely on public water systems, with another 1.74 million relying on private wells for drinking water. It also lays out that nationwide studies have shown measurable levels of forever chemicals in 98% of the U.S. population.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported that low levels of the family of compounds were found in the neighborhood of four to six parts per trillion in recent samplings from 2017 and 2018. The compounds were found in both raw water and water after it was treated by the Milwaukee Water Works, which serves roughly 865,000 people throughout the state’s largest urban center.

Johnson Controls International, a multinational technology corporation based in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale, announced this month the scope of cleanup efforts it is undertaking in and around the town of Marinette in northeastern Wisconsin, the site of years of PFAS contamination by its Tyco Fire Products unit.

The company stated earlier this month it will set aside $140 million to address forever chemical contamination from firefighting foams sprayed and tested by Tyco in the region, which were reportedly detected by Johnson Controls in 2013 but went unreported.

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