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From dental floss to drinking water: dangerous chemical compounds pose serious health threats

A conference at UW-Green Bay aims to find solutions
Posted at 6:07 PM, Oct 27, 2023
  • PFAS are chemical compounds that do not break down easily and can cause adverse effects on our health.
  • PFAS are found in consumer and industrial products and can enter the water supply and soil.
  • Local leaders met at UW-Green Bay to address the issue.
  • The legislature is considering a bill that deals with PFAS levels, but some opponents say it strips the DNR of power to enforce regulations.
  • Proponents say the DNR can only enforce established standards.

PFAS are chemical compounds that can be found in many everyday consumer and industrial products.
But when they enter the water supply or soil, they can have dangerous effects on our bodies.

Local leaders gathered at UW-Green Bay where the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin hosted a conference to bring attention to the harms of PFAS.

"I think everyone deserves clean drinking water and we don't have that in Wisconsin right now,” Gracyn Holcolmb, administrative assistant for the Clean Water Action Council, said.

PFAS have a chemical bond that doesn't exist in nature, and it's incredibly strong. That means it can repel water, dirt and grease; but pediatrician Dr. Beth Neary said this means it's incredibly difficult to break down, which means it can stay in the body for a long time.

Neary spoke at the conference and said PFAS affects children the most.

"There are some effects on the immune system,” Neary said. “Some evidence shows that children may not respond to vaccines as effectively if they have high levels of PFAS in their blood."

Dr. Neary said the chemical is becoming almost ubiquitous — showing up everywhere from dental floss to drinking water.

"We know we have to clean up what we have, but we really have to stop the flow into the environment,” Neary said.

State Senate Bill 312 deals with PFAS in the environment. It was co-authored by State Senator Robert Cowles, who represents the 2nd senate district, which includes most of Shawano and Outagamie counties, as well as parts of eastern Waupaca County and western Brown County.

"It will facilitate helping clean up things,” Cowles said. “Sometimes it might be a remediation grant, sometimes it might be testing. Sometimes it might be deferring some of the cost that the water utility would be spending.”

The bill gives grants to municipalities and some businesses to test for and dispose of PFAS, but it has one stipulation that is upsetting some activists. It states that the DNR can’t require any grant recipient to take action to address PFAS unless PFAS levels exceed a state or federal standard.

Rachel Weber, intern with the Clean Water Action Council, said the bill won’t do enough to help combat PFAS contamination.

“It is stripping the DNR of some of its ability to do enforcing and testing,” Weber said. “So while there is money out there, set aside for PFAS, this would be a bill that needs to appropriate those funds and that bill has no appropriation in it."

While the legislature remains divided on the bill, participants at the conference say they hope to continue to work to keep Wisconsinites safe.

Neary said people concerned for themselves or their families can research online various products that do not contain PFAS, and invest in a reverse-osmosis water filter for their tap water.