All of the municipal drinking water wells in Wausau have tested above recommended state standards for “forever chemicals,” officials announced Wednesday.
According to a news release from the Wausau Water Works, all six of the city’s drinking water wells tested between 23 parts per trillion and 48 parts per trillion. The state’s recommended standards are 20 parts per trillion.
The Water Works serves 16,000 customers in the Wausau area, which is home to just under 40,000 residents.
Wausau received the notification about the high levels at the end of January, following a round of voluntary testing conducted by the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health Services.
Wausau is studying ways to remove PFAs from water during treatment
Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg said the city is already exploring options for keeping residents safe, including a study that will evaluate three different types of ways to remove PFAS from the water during treatment.
“We will run them parallel at the existing treatment facility in the short term, over the next seven or so months,” she said.
The city is in the process of getting a new water treatment facility online, and when that facility goes into use later this year, the city will decide which treatment process to move forward with.
“Each option requires policy body action and budget authorization,” Rosenberg said.
Other long term options could include digging new wells.
Bottle water filling stations for Wausau residents could be an option in the short term
In the meantime, the city will also look at options for providing residents with safe water, Public Works director Eric Lindman said.
“The scenarios range anything from setting up bottled water filling stations at key points in the city to bringing in a large mobile treatment facility to treat all of the water coming out of the current treatment facility that is distributing water to the city,” he said.
Any options will need to be approved by the Waterworks Commission and the Wausau City Council before implementation. Rosenberg said she is encouraging both entities to meet as soon as possible to consider the city’s options.
Rosenberg said the Wausau Fire Department has already stopped purchasing and using firefighting foam containing PFAS, which is one of the most common sources of contamination when used to put out fires. The city stopped the use of PFAS-containing foam around 2019, when the state began its standard-setting process.
No sources of contamination have yet been identified.
Wausau isn’t the only Wisconsin community with PFAS contamination
Wausau first tested its wells in 2019, at which point data did show some levels about 20 parts per trillion, Lindman said. But at that point, Wisconsin had not yet started its process for setting standards for PFAS, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s suggested standard was 70 parts per trillion.
Kyle Burton, the field operations director of drinking water and groundwater for the DNR, said the agency was made aware of those test results in December, when it reached out about the voluntary sampling.
“We recommended some confirmation sampling to get some better data,” Burton said. “And then when that confirmation sampling came back in January, that’s when we started working through the process of public notification.”
Wausau is one of more than 50 sites in Wisconsin struggling with an identified PFAS contamination. Among the other cities battling the chemical are Eau Claire, Rib Mountain, the town of Campbell on French Island near La Crosse, Marinette, Peshtigo, Madison, Milwaukee and Manitowoc.
Some communities, such as Rib Mountain and Eau Claire, were able to shut down drinking wells to prevent residents from drinking the compounds. In other places, like the town of Campbell and Peshtigo, residents are now reliant on bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth.
What are PFAs and how are they harmful?
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of man-made chemicals used for their water- and stain-resistant qualities in products like clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam. The family includes 5,000 compounds, which are persistent, remaining both in the environment and human body over time.
The chemicals have been linked to types of kidney and testicular cancers, lower birth weights, harm to immune and reproductive systems, altered hormone regulation and altered thyroid hormones. The chemicals enter the human body largely through drinking water.
The chemicals aren’t regulated by the federal government and the state only has recommended standards, though formal standards are in the works, particularly for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most well-researched compounds in the PFAS family. The proposed rules would establish a standard of 20 parts per trillion in drinking water, and create rules regarding testing at water utilities across the state.
PFOS and PFOA were the two most commonly found compounds within Wausau wells, said Lindman.
Rules for the two compounds could go into effect this year, pending approval from the Natural Resources Board and the Legislature.
In the meantime, Rosenberg said Wausau community members should not panic about the results, but should likely plan to reduce exposure to PFAS.
“We’re talking to folks today about reducing the intake of drinking water that might contain PFAS or foods that contain high levels of drinking water,” she said. “I want to encourage folks to take this information and decide for themselves how they are going to react.”
For more information about the contamination in Wausau, visit ci.wausau.wi.us. Wausau residents can also call the United Way hotline for more information by dialing 2-1-1.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.