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Days after the federal government set new limits for two of the most common "forever chemicals" in drinking water, Madison’s annual water quality report showed higher than advised quantities of PFAS in 11 of the city’s 21 active wells.

Days after the federal government set new limits for two of the most common "forever chemicals" in drinking water, Madison’s annual water quality report showed higher than advised quantities of PFAS in 11 of the city’s 21 active wells.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of man-made chemicals used in products like clothing and carpet, nonstick cookware, packaging and firefighting foam. They exist in soils and water and have been linked to negative health effects.

The compounds have been found in numerous Wisconsin cities over the last several years, such as Marinette, Wausau, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, La Crosse — and Madison.

In the city’s water quality report, which gives results from testing done in 2021 but just released this month, the water utility department tested all of its active wells for 33 different kinds of PFAS. The testing is not required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the state of Wisconsin. At least one PFAS was found in twelve wells.

All active Madison wells met groundwater standards recommended by the state health department for 18 types of PFAS, and they also met every PFAS standard set by any other U.S. state, the report says.

The federal government has no enforceable standards for PFAS; however, the EPA announced June 15 new health advisory limits for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most well-researched and common PFAS. The guidelines are now lower than 1 part per trillion — significantly lower than the 70 parts per trillion recommendation the agency set in 2016.

“They're not compulsory or enforceable standards and so we have to be careful about equating the two,” Joseph Grande, the city’s water quality manager, told the Cap Times about the new EPA standards. “With that said, we're pretty pleased with this step that EPA has taken because this is a critical first step towards establishing a drinking water standard that is enforceable.

“That is when EPA would take a stand and say, this is the level that's acceptable for drinking water and all utilities across the country,” Grande added. 

Specifically, for PFOA chemicals, the EPA now recommends less than .004 parts per trillion, and less than .02 parts per trillion for another common PFAS called PFOS.

Madison Water Utility in 2021 found PFOA or PFOS in 11 wells with PFOA and PFOS levels ranging from less than 1 part per trillion up to 2.1 parts per trillion — the far end nearly 350 times higher than EPA’s guidance.

PFOA chemicals spanned from less than 0.44 to 1.4 parts per trillion and were detected in city Wells 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 16, 17, 26 and 27. PFOS results ranged from less than 0.24 to 1.3 parts per trillion and were detected in Wells 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 17, 26 and 27. Madison residents can check the Water Utility website to see from which well they receive drinking water.

The city has maintained that Madison's water once again meets or exceeds all federal and state standards for health and safety, as it has in previous years. The EPA's new standards are just “really low,” Grande said. 

Grande’s main job is maintaining water quality standards. He said PFAS especially can have health risks for sensitive populations, like young children and expecting mothers. Those populations might want to pay close attention to the forever chemical levels in their respective wells.

It is not cause for concern for the majority of residents though, Grande said.

“EPA came out with those advisories about two weeks ago, and they’re really low levels. Those advisories are a fraction of a part per trillion, which is well below what laboratories can currently test for,” Grande said. “We're unable to test down to that level. I'm not aware of any lab in the country that can do that.”

By Wisconsin’s standards — 70 parts per trillion, recently set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources after years of lawmakers stalling on issuing any guidance — all of Madison’s active wells fall below that threshold and the water is safe to drink. 

Each of the city’s wells is tested at least once annually. The water utility will test all active wells for PFAS twice in 2022, though. 

After testing water, the EPA advises cities to reduce potential exposures to PFAS, as lower levels equate to lower risk for any health effects. Grande said that's “exactly what the city is doing.”

He used Well 15 by the airport as an example.

In April, in another step to address forever chemicals, the City Council passed a resolution to remove PFAS contamination from the well on the east side. The water utility is currently under contract with an engineering consultant to design and build a treatment facility for that well. 

It will be the first municipal PFAS treatment facility in the city and state.

The water utility is holding a community meeting Thursday night to discuss plans for Well 15 and what the current timeline looks like.

The EPA is expected to have more proposed PFAS regulations later this year, Grande said, and the water department is “anxious to hear what their thinking is, in terms of what that proposal might look like.” It will determine how many wells might be subject to a treatment system down the line.

“Based on the information that we have, Well 15 is the only well that we plan treatment for. But again, like I said, we are committed to meeting all drinking water standards — and doing better than all the drinking water standards — so once that's proposed, we'll be sure that all of our wells will meet that standard.”

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