Firefighting foam is a common source of PFAS pollution. (Shutterstock)
Firefighting foam is a common source of PFAS pollution. (Shutterstock)

Decision comes despite recommendation by state agencies to tighten standards for chemicals that pose health risks.

A Wisconsin Natural Resources Board member, who has refused to step down despite his term having ended nearly 10 months ago, on Wednesday joined other board members in refusing to adopt a tighter PFAS groundwater standard and criticized Wausau’s mayor for causing hysteria by having the city’s drinking water tested for the harmful chemicals.

The board voted 6-1 against adopting a 20 parts-per-trillion (ppt) allowable level of PFAS in drinking water as recommended by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the state Department of Health Services (DHS), instead adopting the 70 ppt standard set by the federal government. The federal government is re-examining its standards, but that process could take as long as five years.

At Wednesday’s Natural Resources Board meeting, Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg—whose community recently discovered elevated levels of PFAS in its drinking water—urged the board to adopt the 20 ppt standard.

“I have mothers calling my office asking if their babies are going to die if they drink the water. People who can’t transport or afford bottled water are asking how long they can continue drinking water and not be hurt,” Rosenberg said.

Frederick Prehn, a Wausau resident and Scott Walker appointee who has refused to step down after his term expired, blamed Rosenberg for testing Wausau’s water for PFAS, saying doing so created “hysteria and psychosis” among city residents.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have been found in more than 50 Wisconsin communities, most recently in Wausau, where tests show the city knew about PFAS in drinking water more than two years before a test in January showed elevated levels. The chemicals have been linked to numerous health problems, such as kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, and problems with immune and reproductive systems.

The DNR has worked to create PFAS standards in Wisconsin since 2019 as concern about the substances and their adverse impact on human health, and their prevalence, has grown. The board has previously reviewed the standards and has spoken in support of them.

PFAS are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t readily break down in the environment or the human body. They are manmade chemicals used for their stain- and water-resistant qualities in products such as nonstick cookware, clothing, packaging, and firefighting foam.

Wisconsin environmental organizations and other state residents speaking at Wednesday’s hearing expressed concerns about the board’s decision. Some said they were upset that the board seemed to dismiss safety concerns related to PFAS and the process used to recommend lesser PFAS levels. 

“Today’s votes demonstrate that the health of our democracy, the health of our environment, and the health of Wisconsin families are linked,” said Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, noting that “more Wisconsinites will be unnecessarily exposed to toxic chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, impairment of the immune system and other diseases” without the lower PFAS standards.

Environmental organizations and other groups have pushed for PFAS regulations in recent years, including an effort in the state Legislature to address the chemicals prompted by contamination at the Tyco plant in Marinette. But Republican lawmakers approved only a watered-down version of the proposal after Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and others in industry repeatedly opposed regulations