Sustain Dane Sustainable Breakfast Series– Feb. 28, 2023 – Spark Building, Madison

By Adam Blust

The class of chemicals known as PFAS – Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances – can be found in everything from nonstick cookware and waterproof outerwear to carpeting and cosmetics. And exposure to PFAS in very low amounts has been linked to liver damage, immunity suppression and cancer.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that a lot of smart dedicated people have been working hard, here in Wisconsin and nationwide, to figure out the sources of these chemicals and work to reduce our exposure. And when consumers know more about the sources of PFAS, they can choose products that don’t have them in the first place.

That was the focus of a Sustain Dane Sustainable Breakfast Series panel discussion Feb. 28 at the Spark Building in Madison.

On the panel:

  • Christina Remucal, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UW-Madison
  • Joe Grande, Water Quality Manager, Madison Water Utility
  • Martye Griffin, Director of Ecosystem Services, Madison Metropolitan Sewer District
  • John Hausbeck, Environmental Health Services Supervisor, Public Health Madison & Dane County

One of the problems with PFAS is that adverse effects happen at very low concentrations. Remucal said with water, we’re talking about parts per trillion, and to picture what that means: one part per trillion is one drop in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.

The chemicals build up in the food chain and are resistant to breaking down, which is why they are referred to as “forever chemicals.” Wastewater treatment does not remove PFAS; whatever comes in, goes back out.

Still, testing has ramped up over the last few years, and research is ongoing for ways to actually eliminate these chemicals from the environment. EPA standards on PFAS should be coming this year. And Wisconsin has a PFAS Action Council made up of members from 20 state agencies.

“On the research front, there are so many people in my community working on PFAS. And so I think we have a long road ahead of us but we’re moving in the right direction,” Remucal said.

Grande assured the group that all Madison water meets all federal and state standards currently in place. PFAS testing has been ramping up in Madison since 2015, with detection limits lowering, and currently all wells are tested twice a year for three dozen of these compounds.

“Safety is a core value at Madison Water Utility,” Grande said. “Madison water is safe. But we’re always trying to make the water safer.”

For Griffin, the challenge of the Madison Metropolitan Sewer District is recycling 40 million gallons of wastewater from 20+ communities every day, which is like filling up Camp Randall three-quarters full and emptying it every day.
MMSD started looking seriously at PFAS in 2018, but “it’s difficult to pivot to emerging regulations” with that volume of water to process, Griffin said.

Technology to destroy PFAS is being tested, but, Grande said, “right now, we’re just concentrating it, and then it’s someone else’s problem.”

Disposal is crucial as well, because chemicals dumped into landfills find their way back out into the water table eventually, and the cycle continues.

The main concern with PFAS exposure is through ingestion, said Hausbeck. Probably the biggest risk is eating contaminated fish. And there are resources out there for consumers like the interactive map the Wisconsin DNR has created on sources of PFAS. But the chemicals are in many places that you might not expect, like the inside of a microwave popcorn bag.

There are water treatment options for consumers: activated carbon/charcoal, ion exchange, and reverse osmosis. Each of those can remove some PFAS from drinking water. But, Grande said, there’s no consumer treatment option that removes PFAS beyond current health advisory levels.

And proper maintenance of those in-home systems is crucial, because if they are not properly maintained, they can make the problem worse, he said.
“You can’t just set it and forget it,” said Grande.

Since the chemicals are so resistant to breakdown and removal, the panel agreed that the real future of reducing the threat of PFAS comes from community action: knowing the risks, making better choices, and putting pressure on manufacturers to stop using PFAS in the first place.

“This is not a wastewater treatment plant problem. It’s not a water utility problem. This is society’s problem – we all have a role to play,” said Griffin. “Individual actions can have a big impact.”

There have been advances in getting businesses to change when it comes to reducing PFAS. The paper industry in Wisconsin has made a commitment to phasing out PFAS, and REI has announced that will phase out the use of these “forever chemicals” in all cookware and textiles by 2024, and all remaining products by 2026.

Locally, the City of Madison no longer uses PFAS in its firefighting foam, which has been a major source of PFAS in the past.

These changes are sparked by consumers and citizens putting pressure on companies to do better.

“It has come down to people,” Hausbeck said. “What they use, what they buy, and demanding change.”

View the resources discussed at the February Sustainable Breakfast Series below, or view a recording of the presentation.