EagleHerald Staff Writer

New PFAS health advisory levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued Wednesday for drinking water are more stringent than the advisory levels currently used in Wisconsin.

Advocates for clean water standards said the new federal advisory levels should help in their fight to improve the quality of drinking water.

“I think it’s huge—having the EPA set the standards now is something we’ve been waiting for for a long time. It just puts a little beef behind the discussion,” said Town of Peshtigo Supervisor Cindy Baur.

The EPA’s health advisory levels aren’t yet a standard, or a maximum criteria level, said Jeff Lamont, a hydrogeologist active with the Town of Peshtigo’s Water Committee. A health advisory level is intended to be a precautionary measure to provide early warning of a contamination. A preventative action level usually is 10% of the standard, he said. “They’ll propose standards this fall,” he said.

The lower numbers indicate the EPA considers the chemicals a serious health issue. “They are saying this stuff is so much more toxic than they thought in 2016 when they set 70 (parts per trillion) as the advisory level,’ he said. “So there must be some really, really strong evidence.”

The so-called forever chemicals have become an international issue. To curtain the contamination, the European Union is considering banning the use of PFAS in products, he said.

“It’s a shame it’s taken this long to regulate this stuff and how many folks have had adverse health effects or died, but finally people are sitting up and noticing, so that’s encouraging,” Lamont said.

PFAS detected in the groundwater in the Town of Peshtigo is thought to be from firefighting foam used at Johnson Controls Inc.’s firefighting training center. While the company has provided free water to residents in a contaminated area, the town board is seeking a long-term drinking water solution for residents. Lamont testified at a Wisconsin Natural Resources Board meeting in February about the importance of setting maximum levels for PFAS in groundwater.

On Wednesday, the U.S. EPA announced interim health advisory levels of 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS, two of the most commonly sampled of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemical group.

These levels are a fraction of the 20 parts per trillion advisory level the Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommends for PFOA and PFOS, although the department also says the combination of several chemicals—PFOA, PFOS, PFOSA, NEtFOSA, NEtFOSAA and NEtFOSE—should not exceed 20 parts per trillion in total for drinking water.

The U.S. EPA’s new advisory level for perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS) is 2,000 parts per trillion, while Wisconsin’s advisory level is 450,000 parts per trillion.

For hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt, often referred to as “GenX chemicals,” the U.S. EPA has set 10 parts per trillion as the final health advisory level, while Wisconsin uses 300 parts per trillion as an advisory level.

“The issuance of these (health advisory levels) HALs by the EPA acknowledges the significant health risks associated with PFAS and reinforces that efforts taken to reduce the level of PFAS in drinking water will reduce risks to human health,” the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said in an email Wednesday.

The advisory levels aren’t intended to be used as cleanup standards but can be considered for PFAS remediation, the department said.

The standards are an important step in determining what steps should be taken when PFAS is detected.

“Without setting solid standards, it’s hard to fight a battle when you don’t know what the numbers are that you’re fighting over. Now we have some of those,” Baur said.

In February, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board unanimously agreed to advance a rule setting surface water standards of 8 parts per trillion for PFOS and 20 parts per trillion for PFOA for waters used as a public drinking water source and 95 parts per trillion for other surface waters.

The Wisconsin board adopted drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS after amending the current health advisory of 20 parts per trillion, which the Department of Health Sciences had recommended, to the EPA’s preliminary remediation goal of 70 parts per trillion. The EPA set the preliminary goal in 2016.

With the EPA’s new health advisory level lowered considerably, it’s uncertain whether Wisconsin will stick with the higher advisory level.