By Shereen Siewert

Two years after toxic substances were found in five Wausau wells, Public Works Director Eric Lindman assured Mayor Katie Rosenberg that the city’s water was “well below” new recommended limits, according to public records obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review

Five of six Wausau wells tested in 2019 showed levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, above the new recommendation. Not only were those results kept from the public, but an email written by Lindman on June 17, 2021 to Rosenberg and a resident who inquired about drinking water testing appears to misrepresent the results of those tests.

Lindman said in his email, “Wausau Water works has been and will continue to be proactive on the PFAS/PFOA discussions and upcoming health risk analysis by USEPA and WDNR requirements. We have tested our source water for these compounds in the past and the latest round of sampling was in 2019.  USEPA has a limit of 70 parts per trillion and WDNR is considering a 20 parts per trillion limit. We are well below either of these.” 

Source: City of Wausau

Lindman, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review, said he was “referring to the individual PFOA and PFOS compound samples.”

Unclear is why Lindman, who heads a public works department in one of Wisconsin’s largest cities, would have separated the two, as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources refers to the federal 70 ppt level and the state 20ppt level as combined PFAS, not individual toxins. The DNR and Department of Health Services had been communicating with municipal water utilities about the 20 ppt standard for many months prior to the email.

Lindman did not respond to a request for clarification.

In addition, minutes from a Jan. 4, 2022 Wausau Water Works meeting shows Lindman acknowledged that the combined totals in some 2019 samples were between 23 and 28 ppt, exceeding the DNR’s guidance. Then, Lindman appeared to question whether the samples were accurate, noting that there were “questions on whether the samples were contaminated,” according to meeting minutes.

In December, Wausau performed additional testing on all city wells. Those tests showed every single Wausau well exceeded the DNR’s recommendation, with PFAS at levels ranging from 23 to 48 ppt.

Weeks after the results were received, Wausau issued a press release alerting the public about the discovery. But while the city’s statement references test results from 23 to 48 ppt, its public summary table does not.

A chart produced by Midwest Environmental Advocates, below, reflects results that include more than just the PFOA and PFOS test results included in Wausau’s release. The Department of Health Services standards for PFAS include additional analytes, but Wausau did not include those in its messaging to the public.

Courtesy of Midwest Environmental Advocates

The new standards have not yet been implemented but municipalities are planning for the new limit by testing their water to determine if any remediation needs to take place.

Of the more than 9,000 known PFAS compounds, 600 are currently used in the U.S. in countless products, including firefighting foam, cookware, cosmetics, carpet treatments and even dental floss. Scientists call PFAS “forever chemicals” because their chemistry keeps them from breaking down under typical environmental conditions.

“One of the unique features of PFAS compounds is the carbon-fluorine bond,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “That bond is incredibly strong.”

Ultimately this means that if PFAS enter the environment, they build up. These chemicals can linger on geologic time scales, said Chris Higgins, a civil and environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines.

Trace doses of several of the most-researched compounds have been linked to health issues from cancers and increased cholesterol levels to preeclampsia during pregnancy. Scientific research shows that PFAS affect the immune, endocrine and metabolic systems. But very little is known about a majority of PFAS, including how long they linger in our bodies, referred to as half-life, their toxicity and how different PFAS may interact in our bodies.

Research into the potential health implications of PFAS shows reason for concern. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the most well-studied PFAS, has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, decreased antibody responses to vaccines, liver damage, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of thyroid disease, increased risk of decreased fertility, decreases in birth weight, and increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclamspia, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. PFOA is one of the substances found in the city’s wells.

There is no treatment for PFAS exposure.