Jorge Roman-Romero | Wisconsin Examiner

Tap water is essential to our lives. It is a vital building block of good health as long as it is safe to use. Unfortunately, our regulatory system assumes that exposure to chemicals is safe until proven otherwise. This assumption is troublesome because even when science demonstrates health risks, it can take years for the government to catch up and protect our health.

And as residents of Adams, Marshfield, and West Bend can tell you, the public water supply in some communities contains chemicals that can make people sick. These communities are just the latest in Wisconsin where testing has revealed unsafe levels of PFAS “forever chemicals.”

Evidence has been mounting for decades about the health impacts of PFAS exposure: fertility problems, cancer, thyroid disease, and immunodeficiencies. These chemicals are especially tricky to regulate because there are 5,000 of them used in everything from waterproof coats to nonstick pans. These “forever chemicals” have found their way into drinking water supplies and can be found in the blood of nearly all Americans. Studies show approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population is served by water systems with PFAS-contaminated water.

Currently, Wisconsin law mandates testing for only two types of PFAS and the amount set as a limitation to be delivered through our taps does not reflect the latest science. So how can Wisconsinites be sure our water is safe to drink? Urge your utility to test for PFAS, share the results publicly, and shut down contaminated wells that exceed health recommendations. As the state and the federal government continue to work on PFAS regulation, we need utilities to take action based on the latest science to safeguard our health.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has funding for utilities to test for PFAS, but only a few utilities have so far opted in. Through DNR’s voluntary program, some communities have learned their wells were contaminated and moved to shut them down and notify customers.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin has seen examples of utilities that have failed to act quickly to warn residents about PFAS contamination. In 2019, Wausau Water Works found that all of its municipal wells exceeded recommended safety standards, but no public notice was issued. Director of Public Works, Eric Lindman, continued to insist that the water supply was “safe” to drink. In February 2022, the utility again found high levels of PFAS and was pushed by DNR to issue a drinking water advisory more than two years after the 2019 tests. With all of its wells impacted, Wausau finally provided bottled water and filters to residents.

The city of West Bend similarly failed to act quickly when high levels of PFAS were discovered in its water. West Bend Water Works found unsafe levels of PFAS in January 2020, but did not take action until June 2022. It did so because Midwest Environmental Advocates learned of the troubling test results through a public records request and alerted officials at DNR, who pushed the utility to notify the public and shut down a well. In the interim, many West Bend residents were unknowingly exposed to PFAS for years.

Everyone has the right to know the chemicals to which they may be exposed and the risks associated with such exposure. While state and federal officials work on PFAS regulation, we need local leaders to step up and do more than the bare minimum to protect the health of Wisconsin residents.

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This story first appeared in the Wisconsin Examiner and is being republished with permission through a Creative Commons License. See the original story, here.