By Shereen Siewert

Toxic chemicals have been detected in all Wausau drinking water wells that exceed proposed state health recommended levels, according to a news release issued Wednesday.

The city recently conducted voluntary testing of all municipal drinking water supply wells for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and discovered the chemicals at levels ranging from 23 to 48 parts per trillion (ppt). The levels exceed the proposed Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources future drinking water standard of 20 ppt, a level based on recommendations from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Officials have not said when the tests were completed or how long the city has been aware of the issue.

City officials say Wausau Water Works is not violating current drinking water standards and insist that residents do not need to immediately stop drinking or using the city’s water. The USEPA Health Advisory Level is 70 ppt.

So, what are these chemicals, anyway? And should we be worried about them? Here’s what you need to know:

What are PFAS?

There are around 4,700 chemicals in the PFAS family, and they all have two things in common:

  1. They’re all man-made.
  2. They contain linked chains of carbon and fluorine.

The bond between carbon and fluorine atoms is one of the strongest in nature. That means that PFAS chemicals don’t degrade easily; they stick around in the human body and the environment for a long time, and are very stable in water. That’s why some people call them “forever chemicals.”

Where do they come from?

PFAS chemicals were invented in the 1930s, and found to have some useful qualities for consumer products because they repel oil, water and grease. Companies used these chemicals in many common items, like paper food packaging (think microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes), stain-proof rugs, waterproof clothing, some types of dental floss and nonstick cookware.

The two PFAS chemicals you’re most likely to hear about are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). Neither of them are made in the U.S. any longer — manufacturers started voluntarily phasing them out in the early-2000s — but because they were manufactured here for decades, they remain the most widespread in the environment, most-studied and best understood. Manufacturers from other countries still produce PFOS and PFOA, and can ship products made with them into the U.S.

U.S. manufacturers have replaced PFOA and PFOS with other members of the PFAS family. The effects of these next-generation PFAS chemicals are not as well understood.

Wausau officials, in collaboration with the WDNR and DHS, will host a virtual information session/press conference at 11:00 am on Wednesday, February 9, to update local residents about PFAS in drinking water. Access the information session here.

Any resident who is concerned about their PFAS exposure may limit their consumption from drinking water by consuming water from an alternative source: 

• Filtered water from a pitcher, sink, or whole-house filter system with a certified filter technology. A granular activated carbon (GAC) filter that meets ANSI/NSF Standard 53 or a reverse osmosis (RO) filter with an included GAC component can filter out PFAS. These numbers will be printed on the filter and/or packaging.

• Purified or filtered bottled water 

• Other sources of water that have been tested for PFAS and do not have levels above recommended standards. 

This sampling was conducted as a proactive measure to ensure continued safe drinking water and to better understand what emerging contaminants may need to be addressed with the new Drinking Water Treatment Facility. City officials say the DWTF is well suited to provide the ability for removal using the Anion Exchange Treatment process, originally designed to remove Total Organic Carbon (TOC), with the potential for removal of other emerging contaminants. Based on these recent test results, Wausau Water Works is currently working to set up a pilot study to determine the potential for PFAS removal with the DWTF.