Communities across Wisconsin have discovered high levels of PFAS contamination in their water supplies. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Communities across Wisconsin have discovered high levels of PFAS contamination in their water supplies. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Wausau is just the latest Wisconsin city to detect elevated levels of PFAS in its water source.

Wausau officials announced Wednesday they have detected elevated levels of harmful “forever chemicals,” which do not easily break down in the environment, in all six of its municipal water wells.

Recent testing discovered concentrations of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), chemicals linked to serious health concerns, between 23 and 48 parts per trillion (ppt) in the city’s wells, officials said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that PFAS concentrations in drinking water not exceed 70 parts per trillion, while the Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommends a stricter limit of 20 parts per trillion. Research and advocates say there is not a universally accepted standard for PFAS contamination in drinking water.

“We are going to work as quickly as we can to make sure that our entire system is set up so that folks can feel confident that we’re below that 20 ppt [recommendation],” Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg said in a press conference.

PFAS are referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t easily break down in the environment. The substances have been used for decades in such products as firefighting foam and stain-resistant sprays and have been associated with such health problems as cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, and decreased fertility, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists continue to study the health impacts of PFAS on humans. 

In the French Island near La Crosse, PFAS contamination is so severe that the state is expected to spend up to $600,000 per year to provide every resident with bottled water.

“Wausau residents do not need to immediately stop drinking or using the city’s water,” Wausau Water Works wrote in a press release. “However, long-term exposure to high levels of PFAS may contribute to negative health impacts.”

Officials added that if residents are concerned about exposure to the contamination they can filter their water or drink bottled water.

There is currently no requirement for communities to test their water sources for PFAS, nor is there any legal standard, as the Republican-led Legislature has blocked such mandates from going into effect. However, more communities have begun voluntarily testing their water sources; Rib Mountain and Eau Claire are just two municipalities that discovered elevated PFAS levels in recent months. 

Wausau voluntarily tested for the compounds in anticipation of forthcoming PFAS regulations from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that would mandate all communities check their water supplies and set strict standards. (Those forthcoming regulations could again be blocked by legislative Republicans.)

The DNR estimated last year it would cost $750,000 to test all of Wisconsin’s municipal water systems for contamination.

Wausau’s announcement came just a day after Gov. Tony Evers said the state secured $600,000 from the EPA for communities to test for PFAS.