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Wausau PFAS: What you need to know
...and what is being done about it
Last week you read in The Wausonian about how Wausau discovered it had levels of PFAS (Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) higher than levels recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health Services.
Tuesday morning — six days after Mayor Katie Rosenberg called for emergency sessions of the Wausau Water Works Commission and the city council — the commission met to discuss the issue and talk about short and long-term solutions.
The Wausonian is providing this report about PFAS in the city for free to all readers, regardless of subscription level.
Understanding the problem
Alarm and concern about the issue abound, as well as confusion. How much should we be freaking out about PFAS? A few things to consider:
Current levels are below the standards set by the federal environmental protection agency in 2016. City wells tested between 23-48 parts per trillion for PFAS. The EPA’s enforced standard right now is 70 ppt. However, many states are going to a much lower standard, and the state’s Natural Resources Board later this month will consider a new standard of 20 ppt. So basically Wausau’s water is in compliance with current standards, but not in compliance with standards that are soon likely to be set.
Why the new levels? Dr. Sarah Yang of the DHS explains that new modeling on the impacts of PFAS in infants showed adverse health effects at levels higher than 20 ppt. But those standards apply to adults as well.
So what is PFAS and why is it bad? PFAS is actually found in more than 5,000 substances, including firefighting foam, fast food wrappers and grilled meats. They can be carcinogenic and build up over time in the body. You might liken it to smoking cigarettes: One smoke probably won’t do much to you, but doing so repeatedly over time will have plenty of negative effects. DHS recommends reducing exposure, getting filters, substituting bottled water (but that can have PFAS too - look for filtered water).
Wausau is unique in Wisconsin in that in other municipalities where PFAS was found, some wells were fine. Those municipalities could simply turn off the bad wells. In Wausau, they’re all over the recommended levels, but some are worse than others.
What’s being done about it?
After about an hour and a half of meeting time Tuesday, which included council members and residents alike urging expedience, the commission took a number of actions:
The commission supported a pilot study that would test various substances to filter out PFAS from the water at the current wastewater treatment plant. That should include a new nano-pourous substance being developed at the UW-Milwaukee water lab. That would apply to the new water treatment plant which should be built by July. Remarkably, the new plant wasn’t designed for lower levels of PFAS (it was built on the assumption the 70 ppt EPA standard would remain).
The commission voted to explore solutions from various firms and educational institutions nationwide. The commission then could issue an RFP for engineering services to find solutions for the new water treatment plant.
The commission also directed staff to look into source point filtration systems — a fancy way of saying helping residents filter the water in their own homes and businesses (and schools, etc). Ald. Tom Kilian suggested the city look into using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fund PFAS filters or other home solutions “immediately” (a term he emphasized). That report will come back to the next meeting in early March. Commissioner Jim Force talked about the possibility of reimbursement for filters, similar to the city’s rain barrel program in which residents received a credit on their water bill if they bought one.
Public Works will also look into solutions such as mixing in other water sources or shutting down the worst wells such as No. 3 and No. 6. They were also urged by the commission to look at ways to accelerate construction the new treatment plant.
Kilian in expressing his concern for urgency was not alone. Former city council member Gary Gisselman made similar pleas, and City Council President Becky McElhaney said residents she’s heard from are not interested in solutions coming slowly - they want action to address PFAS now.
What should you do?
PFAS levels in the city wells varied in levels. In some, they were at 23 ppt, close to the limit the DNR set. In others as high as 48 ppt.
There is some dispute about whether or not carbon-based filters can effectively filter out PFAS. The Wisconsin DHS site says that carbon-based filters certified for PFAS removal are effective. But a Duke University study in 2020 cast doubt on their efficacy. What the study found is a range of results from highly effective to almost ineffective.
But as one council member told me, doing something in the meantime is better than nothing. Even if a filter only removed half the PFAS, it would be better than not using the filter. City leaders are researching which filters might provide the best protection for residents, and looking into funding sources (such as ARPA dollars) in order to potentially provide them to city households and businesses.
The Wausonian will stay tuned to this story.
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